each generation wants

by Whitney Huber

The work on display at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition exhibition, EXCHANGE: Chicago < > Detroit, offers an introduction to several Detroit artists working with different media, themes, and approaches (video, performance, interactive, painting, sculpture, mixed media). Of the work on display, it was drawings and paintings by Adam Lee Miller that spoke to me with a kind of exacting quietude, Billboard (2012), Two Doors (2012), and Dead End (with ceiling fan) (2011). Upon first impression, these appear to be Adam Lee Millerexplorations of architectural rendering, comparisons of floor plans and perspectival views, space or structure flipped 90°, carefully measured, drawn, and painted as if to mimic graphic software. As one is drawn in further, what can be found is a lucid play of spatial/structural concepts and metaphor. Our literal familiarity with construction, and with conventions for representations of spaces, becomes a material of meaning.

How is it that Miller draws us in for lucid wonderings and discoveries? I find a simple exactitude with the familiar that leads us to the lyrical. It also is the spareness of both image and title that gives room for puzzling and contemplation.

The hanging-off-edge composition of Billboard either Two Doorsannounces itself as a sketch, or asks us to envision the yellow surface toppling forward, off the page. We then see it where it lands, flipped 180° horizontally. A signature form of American advertising, emptied of message, acted upon by gravity, and manipulated in the software space of the viewer’s mind – a precarious façade. Two Doors is a more complex puzzle to solve, but it seems we are also dealing with the question of façade. Comparing aerial view with side elevation of an ambiguous rectangular structure, thick strokes of hot pink and black point us to the differences in what we can see: flattened and reduced form from above, yet a sense of the interior, stairs and vertical elements from side, as well as a patch of glittery gold emitting from commercial outdoor fixtures.

Dead End (with ceiling fan) is an earlier work, but I find it more conceptually complete than the other two in the play of drawing precision and colloquial association. Again, we compare plan view with side view in the pursuit of an intriguing metaphor of space. In this larger painting, a flat home decor robin’s egg blue background becomes the infinite conceptual space of Piero della Francesco paintings or depictions of città ideale. All of the elements of structure DeadEndWithCeilingFanhere are floating against that blue, held together by mathematics – the imagined grid of the picture plane, our structured “knowledge” of surface and depth. The realistically painted texture of plywood grounds us in the world of post-WWII cheap American housing, our own homes and garages, gallery walls, and the aisles of Home Depot. Looking back and forth between the two wings of this diptych, we see that not only the barrier creating the “dead end” is  made of plywood, but the painted walls of the partial interior we are considering are also made of plywood, signaling emptiness behind this entire illusion, itself built upon flat panel. A true diptych, the two panels of Dead End (with ceiling fan) depend upon each other, each a perfect 4’ x 4’ square, together making a composition of 8’ x 4’, the common size of most sheet goods. Lumber-flag red and lumber markings (three stripes of blue spray paint) are devices intelligently used to help us solve this puzzle, while generating an interior in the mind. And we are rewarded: if we walk the gridded path, comparing both views, we are surprised by the absent space behind the central red/gray wall. That empty space is the space we might not locate without movement, without the aerial view, without an architect/painter who is acting as spatial/pictorial tour guide. This painting is crafted with great discipline and care of hand and of mind. That’s conceptual painting at its best.

I wondered: Are these plans for real constructions and of what use or non-use would they become in the concrete world? This question is not only posed, but owned, by the precision of choices we are given to move through in projected thought. I appreciate this subtly greatly. They don’t need to be literally built. They are built here, with us.

And: What kind of billboard, or entryway, or “dead-end” are these really? These questions are thoughtfully left open.

In his statement, Miller tells us “that each generation wants the big issues of being, such as death, love and purpose, examined by their peers and depicted in the vernacular of their time.”1 This is one of the clearest and most eloquent articulations of why artists ought to continue picturing big thought, event, memory, or idea with the codes of the familiar: a belief that it’s wanted.



1. Adam Lee Miller, Artist statement, chixdet.com/portfolios/adam-lee-miller/. See more work by Adam Lee Miller at adultperiod.com/Miller/main.htm.


One Comment to “each generation wants”

  1. Whitney,

    Your review was so illuminating for me. I had glanced at this piece you focus on in the gallery, but I had not seen it in this way – as both spatial diagram and two-dimensional painted material. “Dead End” resembles a billboard or façade as well. While I was at the opening, I noticed a fellow who was trying to take a photo of the work with his phone and kept failing to capture it. He marveled at the resistance of the neon paint to cellphone photography. This points precisely to the optical/conceptual puzzle that you identify as well.

    There is a kind of cognitive dissonance happening here between the image as illusory space and the image as façade. In that way, I see now how this work fits with my analysis of the exhibition as structured around doubles, pairs, and halves. Not only is it a diptych form, but Miller’s painting forces two perspectives simultaneously. This requires the mind’s “software space” as you put it to alternate back and forth. And like so much contemporary work, I agree that these pieces make physical (performative?) demands on the spectator, such that meaning arises through close engagement and always remains slightly undecidable.

    Likewise, you are right to point out the attention to standard building materials here. As with several other works in the exhibition, the architecture of Detroit is brought to attention. To me, that picturing of Detroit’s spaces is one of the great values of this exhibit for Chicago.


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