The politically inflected prints of the late Michael Miller (1938-2014) defy easy classification. In two and three dimensions, they combine lament, diatribe and accusation, all enveloped in humor. Similar to the prints of his 19th-century predecessor Jean-Jacques Grandville, Miller created hybrid human-animal characters to critique white-collar types and the violence inflicted on individuals caught between external power and self-realization.
Miller’s prickly visual style and intricate layerings suggest a cross between a political cartoon and an encrusted artifact in a natural history museum. His drawings retain the spontaneity and the dynamic inventiveness of their impetus—the doodle—and his figures, recognizably human, are also patently absurd.
When Miller was teaching at the University of Delaware a graduate student referred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as “the monster school” (presumably because of its connection to Chicago Imagism and the Hairy Who); the student observed to Miller, “your work would fit well there.” It did. Miller taught at SAIC from 1973 until 2013.
Over the decades Miller’s dyspeptic subjects grew from flat prints into three-dimensional beings built from multiples and copies. Quandaries that other artists might be content to leave in paradox Miller resolved through unexpected turns. He considered himself a traditional printmaker while quietly redefining the medium.
I first met Miller in Chicago in 1985 through the print artist Phillip Chen. We saw each other periodically thereafter. I enjoyed his barbed wit, as layered as his art: it overlaid his kindness, which in turn clothed his discernment about human relations. These three qualities allowed him to penetrate beyond surface appearances and simplistic connections.
When I learned he was ill, I traveled to Chicago in early 2014 to see him. Miller’s perceptions were as wicked and funny as ever and we decided to record several of our talks with the intention of publishing them as an interview. Sadly, Michael Miller passed away before this article could come to print. His wit and spirit are greatly missed.
Lenore Metrick-Chen I thought that we’d talk a little about where you came from and how you got interested in printmaking.
Michael Miller Sure. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. I was kind of guided into the arts by my inability to get interested in anything else. In high school my teachers were commercial art teachers. I graduated from high school and went into the service, into the reserves in the years between Korea and Vietnam.
When I got out, I became an art major at East Carolina University and also played a little bit of football. But a lot of the football practices were at exactly the same time as the late-afternoon painting class, and I couldn’t be at two places at one time.
LMC When you first started teaching you painted landscapes. How did you arrive at your current subject matter? Did the process you learned in printmaking contribute to it?
MM It really did. I got a teaching assistantship at Penn State University, where some friends of mine had started working a lot in the print room, which was very cool. We’d go in there at night, and somebody showed me how to do something—that’s how I got into it. One of the people in the print room there did a little magazine called Emergency One, and he asked me to do the centerfold. I’d been looking at all the underground comics at that point, and so that’s exactly what I continued to work with when I left Penn.
LMC It’s clear that the aesthetic of comics appealed to you. Was the counterculture message also something you cared about?
MM I wish I could say that I had that strong in me, but I have to say it was at least 90 percent visual. Some of those men and women could just draw beautifully, like Crumb. It was mostly the visuality and structure of it: how one panel led to another. And the subtleties: one end of a cartoon panel would be straight edge and another would be a wiggly line. But they could also be really pretty rank. You could see the attitude: in one corner of one little panel there’d be somebody taking a dump.
LMC Your work never got into that?
MM Not at all. Most of my work stops at the neck—all heads at this point.
LMC There was a period when you did abstractions of printmaking marks, art marks, and these became the bearers of any kind of narrative.
MM Yes. In the ‘70s, I used a photomechanical process and then hand-worked the prints. These are four-plate color prints and hand-coloring. I use acrylic, painting them in with very light washes. I moved away from these in ‘82, when I was affected by music. I heard what was considered “new music.” I thought it sounded good and I wondered what it would look like.
LMC Did you feel that experience of abstracting elements came back into your figurative work?
MM Definitely. Just the way I structured a page: in fact one of my latest art books, called Head to Head: Confrontation Series, has several pages that are similarly done off the grid.1
LMC Can you talk us through making an artwork from conception to finish?
MM When my kids were small I used to sit around and doodle in my sketchbook. Down in the studio there are 59 sketchbooks, with number one starting my first day in Chicago. Everything evolves from the doodle.
I had traditional printmaking training, so I learned to make a nice-looking print. Galleries would be inclined to show a beautiful print then. So I did color work; I replicated the four-color system of color blending. Yellow, blue and dark blue—offset colors. Along with that, I was doing woodcuts.
Once I got a scanner I started understanding what I could do with simple technology. I was able to replicate an image many times. I would fill these sketchbooks and then I would go back through the sketchbook and pull out images that I thought had a future in some way. It might be a big thing in the foreground, or something as small as a decoration on a shoe. I could take part of a face that is hideous and use it; I can take an eyeball and use it. I scan the image and develop it in that way. What it did give me was an isolated image. And that isolated image would be paired with another isolated image.
So I am creating my own clip art. I have drawers full of it. I go through every once in a while and dump the drawer, but not until several years after making the images.
LMC What is interesting is how your work follows the same process as people congregating: one person, then the next person, forming conglomerations, having affinities that lead to dialogue.
MM Yes, absolutely. If there is a narrative, that’s where it takes place. I’ve found that any relationship between two things is a dialogue.
LMC It’s interesting because, although you didn’t go toward new media, your work does things that people working in new media are aspiring to. “Layering,” “interfaces”—those are buzzwords now, as is the idea of context and interactivity with the audience, emphasizing relationships rather than the object alone. All these are elements within your work. Your work demands that the viewer change location to see the work from different angles. The sculptural quality is obvious that way but even your flat art needs to be scrutinized from the side and from the front and from diagonals.
MM It’s an interesting observation—I like that.
LMC Yet there is a significant difference between your work and new media art. New digital media is transparent, pixilated. You have taken printmaking into a very different direction, into something much more tactile, in a way bucking the trend of our time. Your art has such a feeling of dimensionality and weight.
MM Now you’ve hit on something: the difference between when I draw on a piece of paper or actually make an object I can hold.
LMC Most people think of prints as two-dimensional: the print process is layered, yet the end product is flat. You use a layering process and then you continue those layers into the end product—amazingly, a three-dimensional print artwork. In your series Chicago, 2004–2005, you have collaged paper and balsa wood and created prints that become a form of sculpture.
MM I was a very traditional printmaker—I still am—but when printing became a little bit easier with digital, I’d print up 10 or 15 of these things, and it didn’t take long to figure out how to put one image on top of the other. If I put 10 on top then I had a nice little stack of them.
I like the idea of using multiples in a slightly different way. The fact that I made them into sculpture opened up a different page for me.
If there is anything about this that might be interesting it is the way I use multiples. I don’t make copies. I like thickness and dimension. So in some of the pieces in this Chicago series there are as many as 20 layers printed, 10 on each side.
LMC Pretty architectural.
MM Yes, they are very sturdy. Ninety-pound watercolor paper, but these are prints, cut out with a razorblade and dimensionalized.
LMC So is it the same print repeated and then different parts cut out?
LMC When you would incise from the top layer to get into a middle layer, how confident were you? It seems like that first incision would have been fraught with uncertainty.
MM You know, it’s funny you say that because the first ones I did were like that. I just used a single-edge razor blade. The paper is relatively thin, but not tissue-paper thin. It has body. I’d have to hold the angle of the blade in such a way that it wouldn’t show the side of a cut, which would represent a white line, but undercut. It was painstakingly slow, especially the more detail I had. But it was very peaceful. I could just play with it, get it all just right, and then put a little structure under it so that it could stand up.
LMC What is the Build work? It seems to me an enormously labor-intensive and chemically dangerous process. Why did you decide to go that direction?
MM The “build” is a polyurethane, called Build 54 or something along that line, and I liked the dimensionality of it.2 So I started working with the paper cutouts that turned out to be very sturdy little things. This led to my Amber series, in which I suspend the paper in the epoxy.
I may have seen something like it in a paperweight. I thought it would be nice to make one. But you’re right, it was stinky, nasty stuff, so I stopped. I’d blow out air bubbles as the material was drying and my eyelids would swell shut.
LMC Do the characters that animate your work have a life in your mind as well? Are they characters you think about or do they just come out when you are making the art?
MM These do take on a different meaning for me, and I urge you to look at the three-dimensional pieces. Just lift it and hold it—you’ll see what I mean. I don’t talk to them yet, but that’s coming!
One thing I’ve thought about a lot: all my heads are men. I never draw women. Why is that? There are two possible answers. One is that a male head is significant. The other is that’s all that I can draw.
LMC Since you raised gender, we might as well get into race. Are all your heads white males?
MM A lot of the newer ones are white males in almost a Kentridge style: they wear neckties as a symbol of their function in this world. A lot of these images come from doodles that I make on agenda sheets while in meetings with people that look like that. That’s kind of the answer.
LMC You are very quick to say that your interest in the underground comics was 90 percent aesthetic, yet it seems that over time your work has become increasingly political. Not in specific events or even issues but in terms of the overall nature of political realities.
MM I think you are right. It’s a natural byproduct of two or more people, or heads, or mouths speaking at each other, even without really knowing what they are talking about. Things can happen in the background that might be a little subtle: the puff of a cloud… I’ve written several statements where I have used the words “my work has a political edge to it,” but what that edge is, I’m not sure. It’s one-to-one, like when people fight with each other: one is screaming and one is passive—that’s politics.
LMC Earlier you referred to yourself as the “observing eye,” and it appears your work is also situated like that. What are the themes your recent work is most concerned with?
MM Social commentary. Interpersonal politics. Not event-based but things that could pop up at any meeting at any minute. Some of my influences are social satirists from France and England in the late 1700s, 1800s, and the nature of their drawing, a lot of crosshatching. Robert Crumb, of course. Saul Steinberg. I love the fact that Steinberg said something like this: that he doesn’t really do a piece of art to hang on the wall, he does a piece of art to be reproduced. Then he added, “so then I still have the art. And I have the money from the art!”
LMC In conversation, you seem to have a wicked eye in viewing social events. Do you see this orientation reflected in your art?
MM People have said that my art has a dark side to it.
LMC It seems to me that your creatures also enter into our embodied world and that’s partly why you don’t want to create a storybook context for them. You’re taking them into our political reality.
MM Right. I agree with that and it led to this whole series of titles for shows that I had: “Voices,” “Conversations,” “Elements of Confrontation.” Even if you have an image with just two mouths, you have a narrative. I’ve never been interested in text.
LMC Do you feel that you see things from a point of view, a position of looking at power from the outside?
MM I am the observer, in all instances. I am the head who is not there, not depicted.
LMC A theme of diplomacy has run through your career, and seems to be in your art too: the way your art is about different groups, contentions between groups, power. It reminds me of what is currently referred to as “third space”: when two things dialogue then there’s a third thing that arises, getting rid of dualities in arguments by finding a new way of viewing the situation.
MM Negotiation interests me. I don’t mind that kind of looking for a third way and even surprising myself finding a third way. I’m even more surprised when everyone else accepts the third way in the room.
- Head to Head: Confrontation Series was made for an exhibition in 2013–14. It was Miller’s last portfolio.
- “High build” (or hi-build) is a term for a type of epoxy compound; there are numerous brand names.