Born Indianapolis, Indiana, 1970 / BFA, College for Creatives Studies / Lives in Detroit
The Oasis Motel, a meticulous 2008 depiction of a shuttered motor lodge arrayed beneath a sky bruised by an inky, foreboding blackness, marks Adam Lee Miller’s return to painting after a nearly decade-long hiatus. The intervening years were all but consumed by ADULT., the electro band that he and his wife Nicola Kuperus formed in the late ’90s that catapulted them to the forefront of a thriving, transatlantic underground music scene. But before he ever picked up a synth or programmed a drum machine, Miller was a painter, and The Oasis Motel marks a return to purely visual expression that he describes as a necessary corrective to the monomania of the music business: “We’re multidisciplinary artists,” he says, “and ADULT. was getting to be too much of one discipline.” As the inaugural entry in a growing body of new work, The Oasis Motel typifies some of Miller’s key thematic and formal concerns, while also functioning as a point of departure for the continued refinement of his evolving visual universe: an elegant, everyday place that’s at once familiar and strange, inviting and unsettling, and that is indelibly inscribed by the artist’s droll gallows humor and refined, Mannerist style.
In terms of subject, Miller returns repeatedly to architecture and its basic constituent parts. But whereas the Oasis Motel is a recognizable building, Miller is increasingly moved to draw and paint what he calls “pointless architecture,” curious, invented structures that evoke perturbed psychological states or the futility and folly of human endeavor. Consider, for instance, his hilarious and straightforwardly-titled 2011 Vapor Corrals (a triptych divided into “basic,” “incorrectly installed,” and “deluxe”) or Openings (2014), one of a series of deadpan, two-perspective elevation drawings that expertly depict irrational structures no architect would ever build. Openings is comprised of a cinderblock wall nested within a wood fence, each containing a single point of entry made inaccessible by the other: a closed-circuit frustration machine, in duplicate. (“I like how systems of order are undermined,” he says.)
Openings was one of several pieces displayed at the Cranbrook Art Museum during its recent “Theater of the Mind” exhibition, a curatorial choice that underscores the work’s psychological quality. Obstruction (Window No. 1) (2014) was another. In this diptych, a photorealistic wood frame hovers, impossibly but persistently, half inside a room and half outside of it: a glaring idée fixe, a paralyzing memory, a mental block that prevents an implied subject from achieving literal closure. If, thematically, the piece evokes a Surrealist concern with the irrational fathoms of the mind, its characteristically painstaking formal precision owes more to the rational techniques of hard-edge painting (employed as part of a catholic, thoroughly postmodern pastiche). The lurid but finely applied orange of the windows is one of a handful of “safety colors” that appear frequently in Miller’s recent drawings and paintings; their judicious distribution contributes to the abundant intrigue and visual appeal of his work, but also to the sense that underneath these carefully controlled surfaces lurks something alarming, perhaps even dangerous. The silkscreen “wallpaper,” meanwhile, evokes his longstanding engagement with Midwestern vernacular forms. His penchant for incorporating Americana into his paintings, from the needlepoint in Home Sweet Home (2009) to the folksy light fixture and sign that adorn Entrance (2011), makes clear that Miller’s idiosyncratic, minor key vision is, at heart, rooted in the American Midwest.
That vision can also be a hyperlocal one. After all, the kid from Indianapolis who used to draw elaborate scenes of alien invasion on graph paper came of age as an artist here, in Detroit, the national capital of undermined systems of order. (His first gallery show out of school was in 1994 at the now-defunct Willis Gallery, where artists staffed their own exhibitions and were given a metal bar to protect themselves in case of trouble.) But the Detroit-ist quality of his work can be apprehended in more than his representations of decaying buildings and broken systems. It is more subtly evident in his probing depictions of the commonplace materials that undergird the built environment, an environment that Miller, well-versed in building renovation, knows a thing or two about. There is an echo, even, of the Cass Corridor in his matter-of-fact elevation of plumbing fixtures and 2x4s to fine art subjects, to active players in his lively, figureless formulations (see Swappin’ Spit, Stud, and Messy Stud, all 2015). But an echo is just an echo, and as Miller’s compelling body of new work continues to unfold, his peculiar, plainspoken sensibility becomes ever more his own.
Matthew Piper, November 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2015