At the age of 16 Adam Miller left his hometown of Portland, Oregon to study painting and drawing at the Florence Academy of Art. After seeing images of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in a book three years before, Italy had been on Miller’s mind, beckoning him towards his future. In Florence he joined a rising generation of young artists seeking to study and practice classical realism as exemplified by the works of the Old Masters of the European tradition.
Studying in Italy was a bold and risky move on Miller’s part, especially since the conventional wisdom was — and still is — that the study of traditional methods can at best lead to a limited career painting society portraits and glossy racehorse pictures. Still, the choice was Miller’s alone and it was a decision made out of passion, not practicality. His choices may have looked rebellious from the outside, but they were aligned perfectly with his inner necessities.
Now, in his mid-thirties, Miller’s art has bloomed into something remarkable, unexpected and deeply personal. Miller is creating images that feel genuinely American but which are also deeply rooted in the long lineage of Western art. His theatrical and carefully staged paintings explore a heavy theme — the end of the American Empire — but do so with images that can only be described as beautiful.
Miller’s characters, including his fauns, huntresses, rifle-toting hicks, and fair-haired children are all endowed with a remarkable sense of grace and are lovingly limned and colored. In fact, they are all — to some degree or another — impossibly beautiful. Part of what Miller has borrowed from his Italian and Hellenistic predecessors is the freedom to take striking expressive liberties with the human figure. The elbows and knees of Miller’s nudes may look perfect, but they flow into limbs and figures that are in fact challengingly mannerist. The bodies that appear in Miller’s paintings aren’t a bit “real,” and aren’t meant to be.
Miller’s depictions of the nude — both male and female — are ambitiously conceived vehicles designed to carry the artist’s complex narratives. They are also there to add erotic charges to each canvas and to serve as human elements that embody the anti-authoritarian ethos of Miller’s 21st century Humanism. Sir Kenneth Clark, writing in “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form” makes the following observation about what Michelangelo did to the tradition of the nude figure in art:
“Michelangelo’s intensely personal use of the nude altered its character. He changed it from a mean of embodying ideas to a means of expressing emotions.”
Miller — like Michelangelo — has little to no interest in realism, but his interest in the human figure as a vehicle for emotions is intense. To put it another way, Miller understands how the external appearance of a nude is capable of taking viewers deep inside and to provide access to universal emotional and archetypal connections.
Miller’s settings — sylvan glades, glowering cityscapes, and toxic waste dumps — are there for to suggest themes and to serve as tonal backdrops. The glowing skies full of pheasants, falcons, owls and ducks are there to add to the sense of theater and also as a metaphor for the flight of the imagination. With his remarkable instincts for visual emphasis, distortion, and tone Miller has a talent for making people accept images that are in fact conceived as inherently false: “If you take people into darkness and towards the universal,” he believes, “they will come along for the ride.”
More than any other American painter I can think of, Adam Miller is re-defining the narrative possibilities of representational painting: he is creating a complete new world that contains a powerful and poignant mythological charge. Honestly, the idea that an American painter has found a way to channel the emotionalism of Michelangelo’s figures into an American context, and do it with so much confidence and imagination is mind-bending.
So are his paintings.
– John Seed