As galleries go, William Turner Gallery is a good gallery. It represents the works of established artists, such as Ed Moses, Jay Mark Johnson, Larry Poons, and Roland Reiss. It’s spacious – about 5000 square feet – located in the heart of Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. I’ve visited many times and written about some of their shows.
The other day, I had a chance to see Greg Miller’s “J Street” at the gallery. In the exhibition I encountered large, overcrowded canvases with depressing color combinations, paint drips extending lethargically downward, I felt as if I was in a gallery of wallpaper peeling off the wall. Some pieces were resin-coated and others were left untreated, which contributed to an overall rawness. The naked women and old Playboy clippings didn’t make sense to me.
So there I was standing in front of a wall thinking, is this it? I came here to see art and end up looking at pages of sexy girls, an old cassette tape, a piece of paper from the Château Marmont, a two-dollar bill, and a business card? Where is the technique and magic that I expect art to have?
Feeling let down by the art world as a whole, I left William Turner Gallery in dismay.
However, on my way out, I noticed a press release on the wall, hung like a work of art in itself. It contained an elegantly written quote about Miller by art critic Peter Frank:
Greg Miller brings the pictorial poise of Pop to the eloquent fury of street art, effecting a marriage – or at least a torrid affair – between two hot items. One item is hot today, the other has been hot for half century, but in Miller’s hands there is no generation gap, only a spiritual union – one that generates a sky, or at least a wall full of sparks. (-Peter Frank)
So I thought, okay, maybe I missed something here. And I told myself, “Go home and do your work.”
And so I started with my research and was surprised to discover how little I’d understood Miller’s art and how much I’d missed what he was trying to say. It turns out Miller’s work is inspired by the imagery of pop-culture that manifested itself in people’s consciousness during the 50s and 60s, the Golden Age of American consumerism, a time when television and advertising were flourishing.
I found myself with a new appreciation for why the Frederick R. Weisman and Charles Saatchi Foundation had featured Miller’s work, and an understanding of art critics Peter Frank and Donald Kuspit’s praise for it as great post-pop art.
I had to admit to myself that I didn’t understand Miller’s visual language. But I wasn’t born in America, nor was I born into those golden days of consumerist culture. I didn’t grow up with American billboards or American television; I didn’t grow up with Look Magazine, and while I’m familiar with the works of great American pop artists like Lichtenstein, Warhol, Johns and Rauschenberg, my knowledge about the genre is admittedly limited.
Perhaps I would be able to understand Miller’s work better if I had seen more imagery that had been directly appropriated from this period in American history, imagery delivered via mass media that shaped the American people. To me, this would have been scenes from I Love Lucy or Doris Day films, photographs of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, soldiers crawling on the ground during the Vietnam War, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philippe’s first visit to the United States, Marilyn Monroe’s last interview with LIFE magazine, or the image of the first person landing on the moon.
So I went back to look at Greg Miller’s work again, and this time, understanding his place in pop-art history, I liked his work better. The light from outside made the paintings look lighter. Gradually, Miller’s composition made more sense to me. The overcrowded feeling of his paintings followed his system of logic rather than limiting it. Their darkness subverted the promises of the Golden Age. In looking a second time, I discovered things I hadn’t seen there before. And suddenly an image of Kennedy appeared, buried underneath a stack of postings – and then followed the Beverly Boulevard sign bearing the number 8700. A secret message? Hidden Los Angeles treasure? I had to look up the address to see whose it was. And voila… it’s L.A.’s Cedar Sinai hospital!, one of the largest non-profit hospitals in the western United States. And it was then that I realized that if I kept looking and reading the paintings on the wall, I’d keep finding hidden jewels.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the most powerful works I have seen throughout my life have required the shortest explanation, not the multiple layers that I had to unearth to understand Mr. Miller’s work. Still, this is a dense and undeniably important show and you should absolutely go see it at the William Turner Gallery and decide for yourself.
Greg Miller “J Street” on view October 3 – November 14, 2015 at the William Turner Gallery.
William Turner Gallery, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Avenue Suite E-1, Santa Monica, CA 90404
Written by POVarts contributing writer: Simone Kussatz
Photography Credits: Simone Kussatz