John Miller ‘Suburban Past Time’ at Metro Pictures, review by Nickolas Calabrese
When a homeowner hides the extra house key under a fake rock in their garden, they are not being tricky - they are conforming to the standard plan b. When the key is lost, use the other one. It is like having a fire extinguisher in your kitchen. The idea is that we need other more boring objects in our lives in order to protect the more interesting objects. The fake rock with the key represents a blind surrogate for a far more prized possession. This consideration, and others, is what catapults John Miller’s latest exhibition of new works at Metro Pictures into an important category. They are a survey of the importance of these types of surrogates as well as some not so distantly related video work. Miller is concerned for the portions of life that are ostensibly essential but not too interesting. Things that one could not go without - whether that means a lamp or a little bit of human companionship. Things that are not the consequence of social life, but rather the minute ingredients of social life. Miller is trying to champion what everybody takes part in without condemning or glorifying any of it. In this respect, the sociological underpinnings of the work make way for an unbiased reflection on contemporary middle-of-the-road life. It is a fantastic display of nothing spectacular.
The exhibition has two main components, the first being an installation component made up of sculptures (large fake boulder, a large fake tree, a rug in the shape of the word ‘no’), assisted readymades (some cabinets, a lamp, a chair), and some large images printed onto the wall. The two rooms containing these items are something of a paean to the commonplace. All of the objects are seemingly boring, but act as surrogates for things of more import. For instance, the fake rock (which was noted can hold the house key), lamps for light, chairs for rest, cabinets for important documents, et al. What these objects have in common is that they are all necessitated by the more interesting things in life. But the more interesting things are usually saturated in their popular representation, so here Miller’s objects are remarkably significant because of their under-representation in mainstream life. The large wall images too have this indelible connection to everyone: they display the most common communal localities. Like the cabinet and its documents, the apartment building houses (usually temporarily) persons and all of their stuff. While the first part of the exhibition has a great quality of work, some pieces are a little too mysterious. The red rugs in the shape of ‘n’ and ‘o’ is esoteric in its rejection of something unspecified - it doesn’t lend much to the overall presentation of objects. And the fake tree makes the rock look better when juxtaposed next to it, and could possibly be used to hide objects like the rock, but it feels more like an accessory to an art exhibition and not a work itself. There are also two performers who occupy the exhibition in nondescript ways on certain days - which is to say they sit on chairs or rest on pedestals, and do not really interact with anyone. By and large, the things in this portion of the exhibition certainly succeed in showcasing the functions of these objects while maintaining a benign indifference as to why they are not more popular.
But the real attractions in Suburban Past Time are Miller’s videos made in collaboration with Takuji Kogo. There are seven short flash animations ranging from one minute 58 seconds to seven minutes 31 seconds, which are made up of various repetitive scenes that could either be a postcard or an advertisement. They are coupled with text that is borrowed from personal ads which are then rendered in midi voice recordings. By giving these not so ostentatious images a beautifully digitalized harmony, the videos reach an almost spiritual level. Text that is borrowed from personal ads is predictably cheesy, but the way that it is distilled through midi programs and then put to sensual electronic music brings the viewer to wonder if these desperate lonely thoughts are actually just another effort in an ongoing quest to fill a void. There might be nothing desperate about it at all. Maybe it has come to be expected that people will utilize all of their options in getting what they want. The personal ads denote this pursuit of security in the form of some intimate (possibly shallow, but still meaningful) companionship. The images themselves are a strange animation of quick repetitive loops that are panned across. One of the better ones is ‘Why You Should Get to Know Me’, which plays a scene inside an arcade or a mall, with people just going about their day, while the midi voice sings a luscious song about why you should get to know me (the me here is of course impossibly vague, but acts as a surrogate to any given character within the video, or even the viewer watching it). These video works, along with the installation of sculptures, exemplify Miller’s continued successful exploration of ‘middle-brow’ culture. Over the course of his long career, he has frequently switched mediums, resulting in a post-medium way of working. His influence on others can readily be seen in galleries showing work by young artists, and it is for a good reason too. Miller has championed art about what we are about - not the extravagant big things but the dynamic little things.