An Interview with Liz Miller

February 2012

Liz Miller. Recalcitrant Mimesis, 2012. Mixed media installation. David B. Smith Gallery, Denver, CO. Photo credit: Paul Winner. Courtesy of the Artist.
Liz Miller. Recalcitrant Mimesis, 2012. Mixed media installation. David B. Smith Gallery, Denver, CO. Photo credit: Paul Winner. Courtesy of the Artist.
Liz Miller. Recalcitrant Mimesis, 2012. Mixed media installation. David B. Smith Gallery, Denver, CO. Photo credit: Paul Winner. Courtesy of the Artist.

Liz Miller‘s installations are stunningly elaborate compositions, combining materials and shapes in ways that often belie our expectations. In her current exhibition, Recalcitrant Mimesis, Miller responds to the work of Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still, whose museum opened late last year in Denver. Recalcitrant Mimesis is up through today at David B. Smith Gallery in Denver. Miller’s work is also currently included in the group exhibition Abstract Fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Union Art Gallery through February 24.

I’m really interested in your use of materials, which for me seem to play with notions of weight and weightlessness, ephemerality and permanence. How do you select and think about the relationship between your various materials?

My installations have recently been comprised mainly of synthetic felt with a stiffener in it—this is what most of the installation at David B. Smith is made of. I like this material for many reasons. It conveys fragility, but is actually very strong. It has multiple associations. Felt is used in crafts, but also has industrial applications. It is highbrow (fine, woolen handmade felt) and lowbrow (the craft felt that I use). I love the fact that I can start with a soft, tactile material and manipulate it in ways that are structured and architectural. Lately I’ve been referencing the silhouettes of weapons in many of my works. I like the contradiction between the softness of the felt and the violence of the source materials.

With your current exhibition at David B. Smith Gallery, you were asked to create a site-specific installation utilizing the work of Clyfford Still as a point of departure. How do you typically select the forms employed in your work?

The forms in my installations are usually hybrids. I love merging organic forms with synthetic ones, benign forms with malignant ones, contemporary forms with historical ones. Through simplification and recombination, shapes lose their original connotations and take on new and varied meanings. I manipulate shapes by mirroring, bending, and folding as well as through color choices. The manner in which a form is draped, suspended, or folded can completely change the way the viewer reads that form. Ultimately, forms gain resonance through their relationships with one another and take on new lives within the installation.

Still has been credited with laying the groundwork for the Abstract Expressionist movement. I am curious to know if any of the concerns embodied by this movement have informed your work, or this project in particular.

Abstract Expressionism championed the individual gesture, and Still’s work is no exception—the idea of active, gestural mark-making is present in his large, bold canvases. Surface is also important in his work—there is intensive layering and tactile paint handling that makes his colors resonate and gives them depth. In some regards, the idea of translating an abstract expressionist’s gesture to a cut form is futile—my work only has hard edges. The gesture becomes frozen and generalized. I think this dissonance between my process and his is an interesting one.

Given that the majority of your works are room-sized installations, your smaller scale works are an exciting departure; they feel like psychedelic Rorschach inkblots. Can you speak a bit about these works’ scale and their bright, bold colors?

My smaller works on paper are a very different experience—but they share many of the same attributes of my installations. Although my installations are commanding in scale, I feel like my smaller works on paper have an attitude of courage and experimentation that often is one step ahead of the installation works. They are not schematics or diagrams for the larger works, and yet invariably the kinds of decisions I am making in the works on paper end up appearing in the larger works. I’ve been playing a great deal with tension in the smaller works, and this is starting to appear in my larger site-specific projects.

The colors in the works on paper are probably truer to my usual palette than the palette of the installation, which referenced some of Still’s color choices quite specifically. Bold color is a way of seducing the viewer, of presenting them with an enticing façade. It is also a very immediate way to separate forms from their original contexts. A fuchsia machine gun part, for example, is suddenly separated from its source without much manipulation of the original silhouette. I’m very interested in how visual information is conveyed in the form of charts, graphs, diagrams, sonar, radar—any kind of mapping of information. In such mapping, intense color often is indicative of a hub of activity…or a problem. Consider storm radar imagery, for example. The more intense the color, the more violent the storm. This play between beautiful, seductive color and sinister events is something I enjoy tampering with. And certainly the amped up color gives the smaller works an intensity that belies their diminutive scale.

You mentioned an interest in violence with respect to both your formal choices and selection of color, which I find quite interesting given the incredible beauty and intricacy of your works. How has this concept informed your current or upcoming projects?

I’ve always been interested in forms that embody both beauty and violence. Past points of reference have included invasive plant species and storm radar imagery. More recently, I’ve been drawn to weapons from a wide range of historical and geographic locations. While I’ve become fascinated by the conceptual implications of utilizing their forms in my work, the initial attraction was formal. Despite the brutality of their intended use, the lethal functionality of arms is matched by an intent focus on exquisite formal beauty. When removed from a militant context, many weapons can be taken for decorative arts objects due to their intricacy and high level of craft. I find it curious that we commit brutal acts with these amazingly beautiful objects.

In addition to weapons, I’ve been looking at military configurations and uniforms. There is a highly aestheticized component to war that I am just beginning to explore. Ornament, costume, order, and precision become part of war’s visual landscape. It’s the default position to focus on imagery that is overtly violent: all the obvious dramatic tension is found there. But I’m more interested in how beauty is used to maintain a sense of authority, confidence and control in the midst of turmoil and brutality.

I’m still at the very beginning of my work with this imagery and am excited to see where I can go with it. Last spring I did a project that allowed me to explore objects related to arms and armament from the Minneapolis Museum of Arts’ collection and to implement them in an installation at the MIA. And just a few months ago I took a research trip to Washington, DC to spend more time looking at various historical weapons and uniforms and considering their potential roles in upcoming projects.

While weapon forms were not part of my recent project at David B. Smith Gallery, the linear, militant, firing-squad arrangements that I’ve been exploring in other projects come through in the linear sequences of this work, albeit in a more subtle, Still-influenced manner.