John Miller

Born 1954, Cleveland, Ohio

Everything Is Said 24, by John Miller, 2012
John Miller, Everything Is Said 24, 2012  

An active critic and artist, John Miller has produced an eclectic body of paintings, draw­ings, photographs, and texts that are marked as much by their seriality as by their individuality. Miller studied at California Institute of the Arts in the late 1970s, during the heyday of concep­tual and language-based artistic practice and instruction. If 1980s reactions to conceptualism and minimalism are often characterized as either the "Pictures" artists' turn to mass media and treatment of the image as a reproducible sign or the neo-expressionist explosion of painting, Miller subversively pursued both tracks at once. "Part of the impetus for me, and others," he has stated, "was to bring the political agenda of alternative media back to painting."1

Miller is best known for a series of brown relief paintings that he began to make in the mid-1980s. Built up from a thick, granular impasto, many of these paintings are a chocolaty, fecal mess of inchoate mounds, formed from objects buried just below the surface. In an untitled relief of 1990, chunks, wedges, and balls adhere like growths to the canvas. Under the muddy pigment, which Peter Schjeldahl called "John Miller Brown," just a few forms are discernible: some thin, sticklike objects, a bell, and a metal O.2 Miller described the submerged reliefs as "a supposed signature style," noting, "I thought of it as a trademark no one wanted."3 He used the thickened paint to form intentional, self-conscious brushstrokes that both function as and caricature brush­strokes. According to Miller, the paintings might be allegories of neo-expressionism: "the impasto connoting excrement which in turn connotes money."4 Miller's brown paintings, reliefs, and sculptures introduced a scatological frame through which much of his subsequent produc­tion has been read. 

Foreground: Zoe Leonard, "Survey," 2012; left wall, from left to right: one of five prints from Sherrie Levine, "After Edward Curtis: 1–5," 2005, and John Miller, "Untitled," 1986; right wall: Haim Steinbach, "Backyard Story," 1997. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Foreground: Zoe Leonard, Survey, 2012; left wall, from left to right: one of five prints from Sherrie Levine, After Edward Curtis: 1–5, 2005, and John Miller, Untitled, 1986; right wall: Haim Steinbach, Backyard Story, 1997. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Parallel to these abstract, monochromatic works, Miller pursued figurative painting, drawing his imagery from postcards, game shows, television screens, and photographs in a style that is both regionalist and revisionist. He worked in series, completing sets of abstract and figurative paintings that he often exhibited together in order to explore the assumptions connected with each mode of painting. His untitled painting of 1986 reproduces a photograph of a performance of Yvonne Rainer's Trio A that took place at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 1970. Part of The People's Flag Show, organized in response to the Vietnam War and censorship (namely the Flag Protection Act of 1968), the performance featured five nude dancers with American flags tied around their necks and hanging like capes across their torsos. The large room where Rainer's performance took place is festooned with protest artworks. These feature the patterns and colors of the American flag and a lone swastika. First shown in a solo exhibition at Metro Pictures, New York, in 1986, this work was one of four figurative paintings that featured iconic political figures and groups from the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Angela Davis, the Black Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver, and the experimental troupe the Living Theatre. The body—whether nude or clad in a dashiki (or, for that matter, a flag)—becomes, according to Miller, an index of political com­mitment. He interspersed these works with a series of abstract paintings—brushy and ruddy compositions overlaid with rigid black geometric forms. The arrangement renders the performing bodies and the abstract forms strangely interre­lated through a conduit of social control and artistic sublimation. It also encourages compari­sons between the social realist and the abstract styles, exposing viewers' investments and per­haps false faith in the former as transparent and the latter as transcendent.

Miller's recent series of paintings titled Everything Is Said (2012) depicts people crying on reality TV shows. The faces of the figures, rendered in shades of gray against simple backgrounds, are tightly framed, which emphasizes their contorted expressions and loss of composure. Everything Is Said 24, for instance, depicts two male figures sitting close to each other: the strained, downturned mouth and furrowed brow of the figure in the foreground signals his sadness while the figure in the rear brings his mouth to his shoulder with a palpable sense of melancholy. Whatever intimate and painful episode unfolded on broadcast TV, Miller's painting draws our attention to contem­porary behavior, to how adults divulge their private lives and say "everything" on national television but leave open any judgment as to the humanity or inhumanity of common culture. Miller, like his classmates and longtime friends Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, discovers in the objects and images of middlebrow America a disconcerting yet liberating subversiveness.

—Ruth Erickson


  • "John Miller in Conversation with Beatrix Ruff," in John Miller: A Refusal to Accept Limits (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2010), 20.
  • Peter Schjeldahl, "Shit and Fan," Village Voice, December 11, 1990, 103.
  • "John Miller in Conversation," 20.
  • John Miller, "The Commodity as a Country Music Theme," Journal (Los Angeles Institute of Contempo­rary Art), no. 41 (Spring 1985): 26–30, quoted in Lionel Bovier, "John Miller," Parkett, no. 57 (December 1999): 164. A subsequent series of paintings, sculptures, and installations covered in gold paint brought the excrement–capital correlate even closer.
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"John Miller in Conversation with Beatrix Ruff," in John Miller: A Refusal to Accept Limits (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2010), 20.

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Peter Schjeldahl, "Shit and Fan," Village Voice, December 11, 1990, 103.

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"John Miller in Conversation," 20.

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John Miller, "The Commodity as a Country Music Theme," Journal (Los Angeles Institute of Contempo­rary Art), no. 41 (Spring 1985): 26–30, quoted in Lionel Bovier, "John Miller," Parkett, no. 57 (December 1999): 164. A subsequent series of paintings, sculptures, and installations covered in gold paint brought the excrement–capital correlate even closer.

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"John Miller." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​artists/​john-miller/​.