By RICHARD HUNTINGTON
In the early years the German expressionists revolutionized classical portraiture. They cared less; about what a head looked like than what was in it. Through distortion, agitated paint and heightened color they exposed the psychology of their subjects, sometimes brutally so.
This inexorable movement to the interior life of a subject has been carried to new, parodic extremes by painter Steve Miller in a series of paintings and works on paper at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery.
Using medical imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance images, electron microscopic views of the blood and electrocardiograms, Miller constructs bizarre technological self-portraits. Instead of depicting the particular shape of his nose or the texture of his skin, Miller shows images of his brain, his spine and the microscopic action of his blood. In some paintings an EKG charts his heartbeat. In other works vague graphs and shadowy biological forms appear, crisscrossing and overlapping crisper medical images. It is the specialized, narrow, strictly physical “inner view” of a human being that only medical imaging can provide.
All of these medical images are artifices. Miller is healthy. He has, in effect, “posed” himself before these technologies as one would pose before a mirror to create a traditional portrait. Portraiture is always an artificial situation,. an agreement between painter and subject. Miller exaggerates this artificiality.
He also makes resolutely abstract paintings. The portraits are never allowed their head, so to speak. They are placed in a busy context of splattered paint, pop art dots, graphs and rapid-fire drawing (the last especially in the drawings).
It is not at all odd that these paintings have no sense of intimacy. That may be part of Miller’s point – that science has precluded any personal view of the individual. In this age a portrait cannot exist precisely because the individual can’t fathom himself meaningfully as an “inner self.” The individual is forced to the outside, to accept images of the self controlled entirely by the culture at large.
This impersonality is compounded by Miller’s artistic methods, either intentionally or by force of habit. He imposes a rational control over seemingly chance elements. Splatters, dripping paint and pools of poured pigment, for all their aleatory flash, are doggedly plotted out in the composition. Every drip is consciously arranged. Miller applies a kind of techno-think to a whole spectrum of slapdash painterliness.
The ironies are apparent. Medical objectivity is pitted against painterly expressiveness. What would in ordinary abstract painting be broadly symbolic is here literal, as when Miller makes pools of red look like pools of blood and cracked pigment resemble the patterns of nerves in the brain. This literalness makes a mockery of any attempt to track authentic emotional life. In fact, Miller seems to imply, authentic emotional life is an illusion currently being dispelled by technology.
Miller employs a layered, structured kind of composition reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s silk-screen paintings. But Rauschenberg’s using images from any source, aims to encapsulate a whole social history from moon landings to incidents of street life. His work is dedicated to actual events. As applied to the narrow lens of medical imaging, the grand public sweep of Rauschenberg’s aesthetic seems at least inappropriate and maybe inadequate.
Still, in the end, Miller gives a decorative, expressive modernism a new life in irony. The Munch-like isolation of the MRI images of the brain in “Self-Portrait Small Black Brain” and related drawings project a detached brand of morbidity that is distinctly postmodern. The view here is clinical, not passionate. Death, being, the very consciousness of humanity are reduced to the codified images of science. The portrait, Miller seems to say, can now be only a file of physical traits without any connection to action, thought and character.