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Midlife Crisis

Trace Miller Gets Back on the Job

With paintings such as "Up in Smoke" and "Winterscape," (below) Trace Miller strikes a somber tone that lingers long after you've left the gallery.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 4/10/2002

New Work

Trace Miller

Villa Julie College through April 27

The Gallery wall captionfor Trace Miller's "Links" simply says mixed media, but the titular links in this hanging clothlike construction are made from the fingernail clippings of the artist and his late father. The loosely woven little garment is nothing if not intensely autobiographical--speaking to the themes underlying Miller's new exhibit at Villa Julie College. The recent deaths of his father and a brother are reflected in these melancholic paintings and mixed-media works; the fact that this is Miller's first solo show in six years means he had plenty of time to clip fingernails.

A promising artist who received his M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1986 and exhibited regularly at the time, Miller went into hibernation, at least gallery-wise, in the mid-1990s. Now he's back with an exhibit that is stylistically consistent with his earlier shows. His paintings typically feature a mix of representation and abstraction, and likewise blend art-historical and autobiographical references. If earlier exhibits often had the air of an artist riffing on art-history-book sources, the current show is filled with more personalized middle-age ruminations.

New Works is uneven; the stylistic and thematic ambitions are not always matched by the actual accomplishment. Nevertheless, there is much to admire, and the show strikes a somber tone that lingers long after you've left the gallery.

Miller sets the mood with such works as the oil painting "Black Rose" and the oil-and-collage "Winterscape." In the former, black-outlined flower petals and a gray background make for a very somber floral closeup; in the latter, his depiction of bare trees in a snowy landscape makes for a quietly contemplative scene. In these and other works, Miller demonstrates compositional savvy and versatility in his paint application.

Such nature-themed paintings share wall space with more abstractly conceived works. In the oil-and-collage "Artifacts I" and "II," fields of gestural white and gray washes are broken up with a few de Stijl-style gray bars; the collaged element consists of affixing some actual Italian stamps and lira to the painting. The fusion of Dutch modernism and Italian fiscal artifacts doesn't make any immediately apparent point, and instead indicates the postmodern tendency to incorporate an assortment of (often unrelated) cultural influences.

Miller's most ambitious paintings abound with both figurative and abstract elements. The 70-by-142-inch oil painting "Remembrance of Things Past" anchors the exhibit. It includes portraits, a talc container, trees, a bouquet of flowers, and a fence, sometimes presented in the painting-within-the-painting manner of '80s art star David Salle. It's left to the spectator to thematically link the somewhat schematically rendered subjects, though the painting does have the aura of a memento mori.

More problematic is the abstract backdrop for all this pictorial imagery. Although the vigorous brushwork and assertive colors make for a suitably unstable setting for these floating memory pictures, there's also an arbitrary quality: bravura brushwork done for its own sake. "Remembrance of Things Past" is admirable but would be more impressive if it weren't trying so damned hard to impress.

Something similar occurs in the oil-and-acrylic "Up in Smoke," whose pictorial elements include a horse and rider, a standing man, a cityscape, and a plume of smoke, all backed by a wildly zesty mess of colorful brushstrokes and drips. It's interesting to consider the referential layers here and, for that matter, the layers of paint. However, this particular mixture seems too stylistically similar to the work of Grace Hartigan, one of Miller's teachers at MICA. (Hartigan contributed a blurb to the present exhibit's brochure).

Trace Miller remains a very talented artist. Indeed, most artists would kill to have an exhibit as good-looking as this Villa Julie show. His art-historical smarts and technical virtuosity remain as sharp as ever, and his personal losses give the show some thematic heft. Even so, his facility is a mixed blessing. It's as if he knows how to do a lot of things in a painting, but is still trying to figure out what to do.

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