Melissa Miller doesn't play by the rules. She has willingly committed serious sins for a contemporary American artist: she paints animals, she composes narratives and allegories, she deals openly with sentiment and feeling, her sources are in both Asian and European art, her treatment of nature is not mediated or ironic, and she lives in Texas. Yet, despite these seemingly insurmountable transgressions, her sumptuous paintings have been able to win a loyal national audience.
Even indoctrinated members of the art world have brushed aside postmodern theory to make a special place for Miller's iconoclastic works. In a surprising way, their delicate and often unsettling tone enables them to "pass" and to cross boundaries usually never traversed. Though constructed from a distinctly contemporary point of view, her works have a timeless quality that speaks beyond trends and the immediate dialogue of the academy. They are intriguing anomalies in the age of Duchamp and Warhol that draw on literary and art historical sources that are older, more unfamiliar, and less dogmatic. Unmindful of theoretical restrictions, her works seem true to the way we actually live and think.
Never obvious or one-note, Miller's paintings enjoy a poetic ambiguity that generates feeling and sparks the imagination. Despite various shifts in style over the years, the open-ended lyricism of her work has remained a constant. After achieving acclaim in the early eighties for action-packed narratives set in lush imaginary pastures, oceans, and jungles, she turned to more symbol-laden allegories, including supernatural and spectral creatures. In more recent paintings and watercolors, she has presented pastoral tableaux that demonstrate a becalmed, prescriptive serenity. Miller's development evinces her ongoing engagement with the natural world, one that reflects our complex and often contradictory relationships with animals.
Whether schooled by Mother Goose, Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, A. A. Milne, or Walt Disney, we learn who we are by imagining the inner lives of animals. Claiming them as surrogates, the stories we hear and those we make up about our pets, farmyard animals, zoo denizens, and stuffed companions irrevocably shape our social preconceptions and expectations of adult life. Whereas pop culture has largely forgotten most of the tales and myths of classical mythology, the Bible, and history, it holds onto these children stories of redemption, risk, and abandonment. In light of the political, ecological, and behavioral barbarities of the past century, the old tales of human heroes, prophets, and saints have lost much of their luster. Perhaps we need the imaginative filters that stories about animals provide.
Most of us experience animals only through pets, who through centuries of adaptation know how to accommodate our wishes and even seem to encourage our desires to anthropomorphize them. Through ignorance, we usually approach wildlife as we do cats and dogs, assuming soothing words and a treat or two will make them our friends. Just as we choose to deny the ugly realities of the meat and poultry industries, we mostly choose to forget what we know of the bloody reality of the wild.
Our conflicting attitudes toward animals create a tension that seems at the heart of Miller's paintings. Her imaginative concoctions reflect the physical attributes and behavior of animals and the mythic baggage our culture has attached to them. She uses this blend of nature and culture as a starting place for vignettes with quirky poetical content. While never losing their naturalistic verisimilitude, her frolicking bears, leaping fish, and disguised monkeys are fantastic creatures who dance, play, and disguise themselves as other creatures. Her paintings are less fables than lyrics, whose incidents are designed to spark fancy and the imagination.
Miller's goal is not to deconstruct the metaphorical attributes of beasts but to extend or tweak those metaphors in the traditional style of folktales. In the vein of, say, nineteenth-century artists such as Edwin Landseer or Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Miller finds her own way to honor animals' strength, pride, folly, and humor. Like the great animal painters before her, she uses bears, deer, fish, monkeys, and birds as surrogates who enact ways of coping with the vicissitudes of experience.
Throughout art history, animal painters have usually been considered outsiders. Animals were traditionally deemed suitable content only for genre paintings and caricature or as symbolic or exotic accoutrements. Throughout the modern era, however, figurative artists have frequently come upon animals in their search for subject matter to replace the classical, religious, and historical themes that dominated the nineteenth-century Paris salons.
As finely rendered realism loosened its grip, the visceral qualities of fur, feathers, and animal motion were natural candidates for the looser, more exuberant brushwork of Romanticism, Impressionism, and German Expressionism. Painters such as Eugene Delacroix, Henri Rousseau, Franz Marc, and Chaim Soutine found in animal subjects a vehicle for formal experimentation. Miller follows in that tradition, applying the gestural approach of Abstract Expressionism to vignettes of animal life.
After finishing college, where she was trained in Abstract Expressionist painting, Miller returned to her Texan grandparents' farm in Flatonia, determined to find her own way as an artist. Her landscape paintings from around 1976 use Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes to depict lush foliage in pungent colors. Like in the works of Augustus Tack, blocks of brash hues abut each other, creating nearly abstract palette-like effects. Responding deeply to what she has described as the "fecundity" of the south-central Texan plains, Miller let loose with all-over explosive brushwork that shows her love for the medium.
In her early paintings of animals, Miller presents farm environments teeming with life and activity. A scene of backyard grazing such as Out of the Coop (1978) is a stew of densely packed color and motion. Brushstrokes that portray chicken feathers and dog fur are given equal weight and emphasis as those of the pasture grasses. Melding into the setting, the animals' bodies seem lost in the hubbub as they scent for food.
In Talking to Eddie (1979), a human couple in the background converses oblivious to the real action: a whirlwind of insect activity in the sunlit field of the extensive foreground. Slightly overscaled locusts, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and a lizard patrol a pasture with a proprietary air unnoticed by the humans or a passing cow. In the contrast of their world with ours, Miller opts for an example of her preferred subject matter: a conjectured life just out of our sight and beyond our hearing.
Miller has stated that one of her favorite childhood activities was lying in the fields of her grandparents' farm listening to "the hum of things." The constructed world of her paintings is a fictive zone based on observations, imaginations, and speculations about animal life. Miller's paintings have portrayed animals as inhabitants of a parallel world of both danger and delight, both death and play. Often the animals defy their instincts or our preconceived notions of their behavior. Bears, deer, fish, and a leopard dance. Hares walk on stilts. Such unusual activities are fantastic occurrences, registering as magical events. As in fairy tales, the beasts' heightened emotional states give the vignettes an added impact, playing against what science usually tells us about animal behavior.
In her early works, Miller presents animals in symbiotic relationships with their environments. In Tempesta (1981), a scattered herd of sheep and an array of dark fluffy clouds mirror each other, seeming to incite and stimulate an upcoming storm. In Undertow (1981), loosely depicted crabs and seahorses have become one with the splashy swirl of ocean current. In one of her best large paintings, Anticipation (1981), as a distant sea squall whirls into shape in the background, two shaggy bears and two thickly scaled snakes stand alert, scenting the brewing trouble. These proactive settings subsume their inhabitants, setting the stage for dramatic change.
The concept of incipient metamorphosis animates the series of acrylic paintings on paper, Studies for the Ark (1981). Hares, buffaloes, swans, coyotes, and even alligators are depicted in flight, presumably making their way posthaste to the vehicle that will save their species from oblivion. Miller presents their mission in bold, muscular slaps of paint that communicate a storm-tossed urgency. In 1982, Miller made a series of similarly gestural works on paper, depicting frolicking dancing bears, inspired by the blowsy prancing ursine of the 1862 painting, William Beard's The March of Silenus. Executed in short thick swirls, the bear paintings are a kind of expressionistic hurrah, celebrating the lumbering, lyrical nature of paint strokes in choreographed motion.
Miller's 1982 trip to Europe, which included tours of the great museums, prompted a new commitment to anatomical rendering and the delineation of perspectival space. She has spoken of feeling camaraderie with fellow artists from the past, singling out Rubens, Oudry, Landseer, and Frans Snyders. At this time, Miller also shifted further into fanciful scenarios, sparked by her discovery of the playful twelfth-century Japanese scrolls referred to as Choju giga ("frolicking animals"). These satirical works present animals in lively human-style escapades.
An untitled large painting from 1982 that depicts a gang of dancing monkeys taunting three crouching tigers demonstrates both Miller's new whimsical subject matter and her greater attention to animal musculature. Expressionistic brushwork has taken a backseat to pictorial plausibility and narrative intricacy. The tigers' crouching postures emphasize the ridged stripes of their coats, which complement the whiplike lines of the monkeys' tails. The scenario is charged by the tigers' suspicion—one that perhaps mirrors that of the viewer. Miller sets up a subversive situation in which strength seems undermined by unexpected, impulsive frivolity.
The seemingly unassailable strength of tigers is more dramatically challenged in Flood (1983), in which two large beasts are depicted being edged out by rising waters. Muddy, gold-flecked waves also sweep a red-throated crane off its perch near the cats. Although at risk of being subsumed by the storm, the massive tigers still stand proud. Emblems of impotent power in an ever-shrinking domain, they crouch without surrendering their dignity; the storm seems almost a projection of their potential strength. This self-annihilating transfiguration of animal prowess into the environment evokes a kind of muted terribilità, one reflecting the essence of the wild.
In Leopard Dance (1983), a group of cats witnesses a mysterious transubstantiation of one of their own: a prancing leopard in a clearing that seems to be dissolving into light. Watching in the foreground, three tigers and a leopard are surrogate viewers, standing back in awe of this literally enlightening transformation. Miller continues to present the collision of animal prowess with cosmic forces in a group of paintings on paper depicting large mammals toying with the image of the moon (1983-1984), inspired by Yoshitoshi's print series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. Miller's beasts attempt to swat, bite, and pounce on the lunar orb, seeming to hold their own against an insurmountable force. The paintings are comic tributes to the kings of the jungle and tundra, poised at the moment just before the animals' illusions are brought up short.
A technical tour de force, the panoramic diptych The Ark (1986) presents a fantastical, all-over stew of corralled wildlife. Unexpectedly, tensions arise not between the gathering species but within individual couples. Animal pairs react variously to each other with love, rancor, indifference, playfulness, or circumspection. The unlikely shipmates assemble under ominous skies, perhaps miffed at their mates but united in purpose on the brink of disaster. Clustered together in common danger, this multispecies microcosm demands the toppling of hierarchy and the abandonment of the food chain. Disaster mandates an awkward utopia, the "peaceable kingdom" of emergency.
Miller's works from the mid-eighties continue to examine various struggles for power within the animal world. Her allegories are conveyed through divergent depictions of various breeds and species pitted against each other. Amid the untamed rush of the mountain waterfall in Salmon Run (1984), she contrasts the daredevil pluck of the fish, which desperately fling themselves upstream, with the hulking presence of the bears, which snatch the flying prey with ham-fisted paw and open jaw.
Other paintings from this period address the varying physical attributes of predators in the wild. Through genetic adaptation—reflected in the coloration, size, and texture of skin, fur, or feathers—nature determines a species' prowess, setting up an odd hierarchy of pattern and decoration. Zebras and Hyenas (1985) depicts a sunset war of stripes and spots, set in an open field in which the zebras' starkly patterned coats mark them as targets. With their scruffy, dotted fur at one with the grassy plain, the hyenas nip and pounce, causing the bolting zebra herd to panic. Their massive size has suddenly become an impediment to escape.
A series of acrylic works on paper depicts a more insidious form of predatory behavior: disguise. In these works, a wolf, baboon, raven, owl, rabbit, and bobcat wear skins of other species to deflect the attention of their prey. The duplicitous camouflage makes apparent how fairy-tale images mask animals' instinctual roles as predators. Like the wolf of "Little Red Riding Hood," the animal actors of these paintings seem to enjoy the artifice and cunning deception of their costumed roles.
In the late eighties, Miller's perspective shifted to more internal power struggles, embodied in animals' confrontations with various demons and spirits. As in all her works, the allegorical incidents have obvious ramifications for mankind. Inspired by the changelings and ghosts of Japanese folklore, as well as the symbols and representations of spirits often used by Renaissance painters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Fra Angelico, Miller focused on transformations between the natural and spirit worlds, reflecting, as she once stated, "the movement that comes from decisions, the events that accumulate and force action, and the alternations that are a product of natural changes in life."
Painting entails a kind of metamorphosis of canvas and pigment into the representation of life and feeling. With her brilliant formal command of color, texture, and line, Miller fully explores the notion of metamorphosis in her works. She not only depicts moments of physical transformation, but also presents tempestuous environments that seem in the act of fully subsuming animal characters. Nature is a transubstantiating force in Miller's work, sweeping animals into its magical, life-changing craw.
The animals of these paintings react in a variety of ways to the supernatural world. Only one of the three monkeys of Smoky Spirits (1986) seems capable of comprehending the presence of the ghosts, skeletons, and specters that rise out of a night fire. In Wall of Fire (1986), a beleaguered panther stands on two legs, fighting to ward off a fierce onslaught of demonic serpents and creatures. In Exhale (1986), the spirits come from within, as a polar bear suddenly expunges the souls of his past prey.
Dramatic moments of metamorphosis occur in several of the paintings. In Tears (1988), a huge standing brown bear weeps tears that hold the souls and skeletons of animals and men. Born in mysterious sorrow, the teardrop spirits are released when they hit the surf and scamper away to newfound freedom. In New Skin (1988), an individual case of recovery and rebirth occurs in the transformation of a golden lioness from the spectral body of a dying deer.
The paintings of the early 1990s unleash an unruly host of supernatural spirits. In the surreal allegory Liar (1990), a flying rooster with a horse's head spouts pretty roses that scatter over a crowd of hapless humans and weird critters. The griffin's appealing patois has the crowd in abatement, save for a female-breasted bird and eager puppy that stand up, unabashed by the fallout. In Decision (1991), a blue-tinged swan with the body of a woman faces a hoard of busy desperate creatures led by a large deer. The onslaught is an unsettling vision of a Bosch-like hell that includes a wild boar, vulture, skeleton on horseback, adulterous couples, receiverless phone, cowering angels, and ensnared rats.
Themes of choice, perception, and transformation depicted in this period of Miller's work come to a climax in the treatment of a classical subject Temptation of St. Antony (1993). Miller's stand-in for the saint is the proud, upright stag of Landseer's Monarch of the Glen (1851). He is here tormented in a dark cave by a host of monsters and spirits, literally brought to earth in battle stance, as he attempts to ward off a demonic fireball with his antlers. The mortification of Landseer's magnificent beast represents a stern reckoning with the omnipresent forces of evil and violence in the world.
The apotheosis of Miller's baroque period comes in two large visions of the cosmos. In Day Sky (1994), a migratory flight of birds is interrupted by signs of a plane crash and apocalyptic bombings. Just as the horizontal brushwork of the sky is violated by patchy vertical streaks from a bomber's contrails, the determination of the flock is thrown off track by the violence around them. Escape in flight seems indeed in order.
Night Sky (1995) represents a release into imaginative realms beyond. With bats, birds, and a night owl as guides, Miller blasts us into sumptuous outer space, populated by the spirit-like animals of constellations and a twinkling diadem of comets, galaxies, and stars. Presided over by a huge moon with a shimmering aura, Night Sky seems a kind of purge of the violence of the earlier allegorical paintings. Fictive space offers release for the imagination's large cast.
In her recent work Miller has scaled back the scope of her enterprise, turning to more confined social groupings that carry a kind of metaphysical weight. Stripping narrative to its most basic form, she explores the nuances of placid tableaux that operate as animal still lifes. As an influence on these works, Miller has mentioned the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, whose quiet, luminous depictions of bottles and vases have a profound composure and spiritual resonance. Like Morandi, Miller experiments with odd clusterings and unusual arrangements to convey subtle allegorical meanings.
Her painting Group (1998) sounds the new tone of serenity in its depiction of a bear, cow, stork, and deer who confront the viewer in a horizontal row, seemingly transcending any intraspecies anxieties. Birds (1999) presents an unlikely gathering of tranquil avians, blithely at rest on a patch of scruffy desert. At this time, Miller also began an ongoing series of small gouaches; paint is thinned in background areas to achieve watercolor-like effects that complement renderings of, for example, a deer at a watering hole and sheep beneath a flowering tree.
Her major recent work, Farm (2002), is like a less-stilted, more rigorously painted version of Edward Hicks's "Peaceable Kingdom." The range of farm animals has been expanded to include examples of exotic breeds now cultivated as Texan stock. In this seven-foot-wide painting, a centrally placed llama squats in a pasture of idle and ambling cattle, deer, goats, and birds. Miller's luscious brushwork conveys an ostrich's fluffy feathers and cow's taunt flank, while her quick strokes of pale green map out a flat Texan terrain. A dog yawns and stretches, his shepherding duties not called for in the laissez-faire, communal arena. Miller's egalitarian, ideal democracy seems happily desublimated, stripped of nature's menace and the compulsions of survivalist instincts.
The paintings derive their charm from both the gorgeous paint handling and the unlikeliness of the mixed-breed groupings. Miller draws inspiration from the actual conglomerates of exotic and domestic animals coexisting in Texas pastures. One of the sheep in Sheep, Goats, Llama (2002) makes eye contact with the viewer as if offering an invitation to join the mixed-species herd. Diversity is lovingly embraced in Miller's groupings. In Red Pony (2002) a stately, pale mare proudly watches over her wobbly-legged, garishly colored foal, while in Cluster (2003) two giant oxen and a bevy of idling monkeys casually gather around a miniature Asian bear.
After the turmoil of her earlier paintings, Miller's pacific settings seem well earned. These are the mature reflections of more than two decades of thinking about the role of animals in our culture and the hierarchy of power in society. The tolerance portrayed in the works depends on the domesticated animals' transcendence of violent instincts, primal fears, and rivalries of breed. The tranquil, trouble-free groupings describe a barnyard utopia that clearly might serve as a model for our species. Presented with good-natured, deadpan humor, Miller's pastoral paintings realize a fanciful wish fulfillment, a vision of peace in our own back forty.
Ignoring postmodern strictures, Miller has extended romantic and allegorical traditions that have fueled a significant undercurrent of modern and contemporary art making. Like the profound figurative works of an older generation of American artists that included Joan Brown, Gregory Gillespie, Llyn Foulkes, and Charles Garabedian, Miller's paintings are earnest and imaginative alternatives to the dour photographs, conceptual one-liners, slacker abstractions, and cynical portraits that today dominate our kunsthalles and contemporary museums. Although vastly underrated, Miller is perhaps the best known of the handful of serious contemporary artists who regularly feature animals in their paintings, including John Wilde, Tom Knechtel, Thomas Woodruff, Tim Ebner, Sarah Canright, M. A. Peers, and Laurie Hogan. Of them, Miller has perhaps delved deepest in using animals to shape a vision of our behavior and culture.
Despite art theorists' rhetoric about cyberspace and simulacra, a natural world exists outside the frays and trivialities of media culture that addresses more primal and vital aspects of life. Miller's paintings explore issues basic to both beast and man, such as power, instinct, affection, transformation, fantasy, tolerance, and betrayal. Shaping allegorical tableaux through her poetic sensibility, Miller has created a complex body of work that melds our experiences with those of other species, reflecting the symbiotic relationship of all living things. Miller's animals are metaphorical beings, capable of changing their nature. As she has shown in her work throughout the past three decades, metamorphosis—the heart of narrative—is a kind of transcendence of nature that may offer peace.