Bill Miller at dieFirma
October 20, 2022 – January 21, 2023
In Pittsburgh, the artist Bill Miller has skinned many a floor. He’s after the linoleum that characterized the era of his youth, the surfaces of which are marked by the sheen of age and use. Back in his studio he cuts it up and glues it down into collages of remarkable complexity that alternate between portraiture, landscape, still-life, and genre scenes. Each piece pulsates.
Standing before any given collage one senses the pathos of Miller’s process; one feels the tenderness that the artist has for his material and the intelligence and creativity that he’s used to transform it. That transformation is what imbues the work with its beat of energy, which extends and connects one collage to the next through decorative motifs that recur in varying capacities. A pattern that serves well as sky in one piece occurs in another as a pantleg. The viewer can reconstruct the artist’s choices, and that enables a particular nearness to the work. My sense is that Miller always has a clear vision or image-destination in mind, but that he must remake the map every time he sets out.
The scale of Miller’s work—all of it was made this year—is astounding. There are collages the size of record sleeves at the gallery’s entrance, but the truly ambitious efforts are further back and are big enough to dwarf even the largest of the artist’s audience. The Birch Forest is about twenty feet long. It’s made of four conjoined collages of equal proportion, the effect of which is a total subsumption of the viewer. Because the perspective is more or less human height, the work begins to recreate what it represents. It seems less an image of a forest than a forest of linoleum.
When the subject matter turns to domestic interiors, the artist chooses scenes of low-simmering intimacy. A boy and a man play a video game; a man and a woman watch a television program. The quotidian nature of these images corresponds with the material from which they are made rather neatly. Childhood Dream shifts into a more hallucinatory register. A seated child with penetrating eyes that look directly forward is positioned beside a large potted plant—normal enough. Behind her the wall fails as divider between interior and exterior, and in the confusion a factory appears to have come inside. White smoke disgorges from its stacks, and as it moves across the composition the smoke becomes blue clouds afloat in a distant sky.
The distance one’s eye travels as it moves across Miller’s surfaces far exceeds the actual limits of the physical objects. Part of this is a function of time. Certain zones of Miller’s collages don’t reveal themselves immediately. Another is the Brueghelian scope of his townscapes. Miller achieves a compression of depth so great that the volume of what his image may contain is overwhelming. More than once I found myself taking a step back.
When you are very near Miller’s collages the age of the linoleum is a felt presence, and it pushes the curious mind to wonder about its history. If it was the “fabric of America,” as the artist imagines it to have been, what does it mean for him to have rescued and reconfigured it? What happens to the material memories of one generation as they are recycled and renewed by the next? As the known thing becomes unknown, what is preserved?
These questions played in my mind as I traced hairline cracks from blemish to blemish in the linoleum and admired the accumulation of so many very small and particular shapes accruing into behemoth pictures. It is exciting to see an artist use material so masterfully, and even more so when that mastery is the evident gain of a persistent and dogged pursuit. The artist has unquestionably made the material his own, so much so that whenever I encounter linoleum, I’ll think of Bill Miller.