— Drawing on the Utopic

Eleanor Ling on Matthew Miller

“I don’t identify with this guy at all,” the artist tells me, gesturing towards the painting of himself that hangs between us – “I want him to be literally my likeness.”  I am sitting down with Matthew Miller to discuss his current show, Can’t You See It, I Am One, which comprises of five stunning yet chilling portraits of the same face – his – against a Mars-black background, straight from the tube.  Larger than life, the figures exude a remarkable intensity for faces otherwise  devoid of categorizable expression.  They don’t frown nor do they smile, but rather occupy some emotional middle ground much more complex and entirely dependent on the attitude of the viewer.  I still haven’t decided just what I find in these faces, but it is clear that there is something larger going on here apart from the obvious – “I’m not purely participating in self-portraiture,” Miller tells me.

Perhaps there is something in man’s attempt to see himself visualized that carries a certain weight for us as humans.  The classic self-portrait creates a layering in which the viewer is able to view the process of the artist viewing himself.  Matthew relays this to me as a “self-referential, circular way of looking that is making,” regarding all resultant relationships between the artist, the painting, the mirror, the viewer, etc. as “triangular” or “circular ways of looking,” that converge and transmute in unexpected ways.  There is no denying that the artist willingly engages with the features of self-portraiture as they pertain to technical effect and this dramatic cycle of looking, but avoids the classification on more ideological grounds.  “The programmatic qualities of portraiture are there to be used, not exploitative,” he tells me, and by not adhering fully to the label the art enters a place “where other conversations and interpretations can happen.”

Take for example his signature black background.  The hard, flat black jars in a slightly unnerving way with the fluid translucence of the shadowy skin tones.  In 2011, Miller produced an exhibition at Famous Accounts which he titled ‘the magic black of an open barn door on a really sunny summer day, when you just cannot see into it.’  The flat black prevents the viewer from perceiving any background at all, which ultimately prompts a contextualizing of the piece for oneself.  Even when it’s so sunny that a the eye perceives an open barn door as pitch black, the mind is aware that there is something within.  Consider the expressionless quality of these probing faces – “Neutral expressions tend to be more complex,” Miller explains to me, “You think you’re getting rid of expression but really you’re adding to it.”  By removing all recognizable emotional cues, the portraits force the viewer to look deeper, to concoct their own perceptions of the figure’s perplexing demeanor.  And this is completely encouraged by Miller – the more the viewer subconsciously adds to the work, the less relevant is its status of pure “self-portraiture.”

When I ask the artist what made him start painting portraits he cites the influence of a specific teacher from college.  She was a figure painter, and featured heavily in his decision to “do the highest ideal thing.”  He speaks to his moment of realization: “Just because my blue collar background didn’t take [my painting] seriously, or thought it was a hobby didn’t mean that I had to.” For Matthew Miller coming from a rural childhood, the classical figure painting represents a certain seriousness and the ideal of an artistic world that he hadn’t always presumed access to.  No one can deny that these are serious works; many have likened them to Old Master paintings, so concentrated is their dramatic intensity and dark, brooding effect.  “The human quality is it’s slight weirdness,” says Miller of his artistic style, a weirdness that he is just starting to admit to himself – “in a good way.”

Are we to expect more of the same from Miller in the future or will he decide to take another direction?  The artist believes that he will always have a self-portrait going, more or less just to practice.  They take around six months to create, though he works on two or three at a time.  These portraits are unique in that they don’t stay static – they shift, they grow and expand as he returns to the piece every few days to redo a shape or a certain black outline.  Ultimately the artist himself doesn’t know what to expect.  “I always want my work to take me down a rabbit hole,” he says, “hopefully my work in this show will drag me to somewhere I never expected to be.”  The proverbial rabbit hole is a good metaphor for these works in which the viewer is both granted and denied access to context, to emotionality, and forced to create their own.  “Maybe there will be lots more self portraits,” the artist muses, “maybe there will never be another one.”