Born Chicago, IL 1975 / BA Hampshire College; MFA University of Michigan, Ann Arbor / Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan
Printmaker Toby Millman is not one to talk unless you are listening. Her presence, like her work, is often quite understated, indicating not a lack of depth, but confidence in what you will find when you take the time to notice. One thing you will find is a body of work that interjects quiet reflection into scenes of active conflict—the calm at the eye of the storm—and focuses on populations who experience struggle and social division, both in Michigan and as far afield as Palestine, the central locations for a large cross-section of Millman’s oeurvre.
The inherent tension in a Jewish artist creating a body of Palestine-based work is not lost on Millman. She has categorically eschewed any obvious identification with Israel, despite having Israeli roots and making regular childhood visits to family in Tel Aviv. In work that explores a budding awareness of Israeli/Palestinian relations, Millman began with a neutral perspective, producing The Curse of the Bambino, which juxtaposes historic documentation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (rendered in glow-in-the-dark screenprints visible beneath shrouds at the opening) with those addressing the longstanding rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. 1001 Arabian Knives is a series of lithographs and letterpress prints that assemble and illustrate documentation from a 2004 incident implicating six Egyptian students in an array of intended acts of terror. However, the combined effect of two residencies in East Jerusalem and Ramallah affected the tenor of her work dramatically, and future explorations are increasingly reflective of and sympathetic to a Palestinian perspective. Access & Closure: stories from in and out of an occupied Palestine is a 64-page letterpress book that collects fragments and significant moments from two lengthy visits to Palestine, paired with astonishing paper-cut images traced from photographs and maps. The indentation these leave on the page seem to physicalize the deep impression left by these visits, and the text elements accompanying the images take on first-person narration, even in the retelling of the stories of others—Millman has made herself part of the picture.
Maps crop up frequently as a motif in Millman’s work, and are a convenient form of visual shorthand for her habit of exploring divisions—even those as localized as the border between Detroit and Hamtramck, as with her collage series, Census 2010:48212, which uses found paper from Hamtramck, laser-cut to form houses. Even in her work From Here on Out, which ostensibly examines life in Hamtramck, there is an eastward-looking quality, an irresistible draw to tie the current population of Hamtramck back to its largely Yemeni roots. Dealing directly with maps is Facts on the Ground, which was inspired by a commercially available map of Jerusalem that, as Millman discovered, did not acknowledge the Arabic names for streets, even in neighborhoods where the population is predominately Arabic-speaking. The 52-page hardbound book is punctuated by cut-out maps; again, the physical implementation of Millman’s printmaking speaks to a psychic reality, in this case omission or nullification of a people’s signifiers of place.
While Millman’s finished pieces are typically prints or collages, photography plays a crucial foundational role in her process; much of her print imagery is traced or otherwise lifted from her own reference photos. Earlier bodies of photographic work indicate this form of image-making was once an endpoint, but is now relegated to a primary process. Still, selections from Documents of Elapsed Time reveal Millman’s consistent interest in the progression of events—and art acts as a mechanism for dealing positively with her own resistance to change or the inevitable march of time. Perhaps it is this instinct that draws Millman to focus on blank spaces and interstitial moments—her latest body of work is comprised of minimalist cityscapes, taken out of time and rendered in washes of ink that nearly fade from the page. Much like the abandoned storefronts and empty marquee signs that populate Millman’s newest work, she is advertising nothing; her messages, and indeed the images themselves, are only detectable through dedicated and careful consideration. Toby Millman is not going to shout at you, and she doesn’t need to; the power of her work is enough to make you lean in, even when she lowers her voice.
Rosie Sharp, August 2015