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John Miller and Christopher Williams, Interview Magazine

John Miller, Everything is Said 22, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

John Miller and Christopher Williams, Interview Magazine

The following abridged interview was republished with permission from Interview Magazine.

CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS (Photographer): I thought I could start by asking you about your rules as an artist and the different activities you engage in as an artist. You’ve been working for a while and you’re putting together a retrospective. Could you say something about how different activities affect each other and how they’ve developed over the years?

JOHN MILLER: The three areas for me would be making work in the studio or outside of the studio, teaching, and writing criticism or texts that are works in themselves or straddling criticism. Those are the different spheres. I think they can reinforce each other but sometimes it’s a matter of what distinguishes them as the mode of reception or the context that people give them. Art & Language established, a long time ago, that a text can be an artwork, or even teaching younger people about art can be an artwork. It’s just a mode of reception and context that gives it a particular definition. Maybe that can even be equated to the way the art world sees photography, and the meaning of photographs being established by the channels they move through.

WILLIAMS: Do all of these things in your daily life overlap? Are you doing several things in the studio at once, or do you have time to set aside where you mostly write or mostly paint?

MILLER: During the school year there’s a lot of overlapping. During the summer—I’ve spent the last 26 years in Berlin during the summer—things are really quiet and it’s a little more concentrated. Another area that I left out was musical activities, just to make it more complicated, that’s another sphere. But one thing that seems inevitable is to what extent it becomes managerial versus doing the thing itself. It’s less the case in Europe, but in the U.S., with high tuition and an intensification of computer technologies, teaching has become more and more managerial—organizing classes, organizing forms of feedback for the students, and evaluating every step in the educational process. That can seem a bit burdensome.

In the studio, I’m in a phase where I’m pursuing a lot of stuff with assistants. Right now, I’m making these shaped pedestrian paintings. Put simply, they are paintings of pedestrians mostly standing on street corners waiting for the light to change. They’re from photos I shot myself, but I wanted a level of realistic painting that’s more objective than the way I usually paint. It’s taken a more technical approach to making these paintings, I have nine people who are painting things for me and they need to have panels ready when they’re ready to work. It puts more emphasis on the managerial side of things. I’m trying to sort out what that means; it allows me to make something more developed, whereas more of my early work, the facture of it was pretty simple. But I’m doing a few more simple, more direct things as well. I don’t know if you seen the PowerPoint works I’ve been doing?

WILLIAMS: I saw a couple. I’m not sure what they are, but you continue the “Middle of the Day” photographs, [a series of images taken in public spaces between 12 and 2pm].

MILLER: The PowerPoints are an outgrowth of those because I’ve reached a point with the “Middle of the Day” works where it’s both good and bad. The kind of photography I’ve done, starting in ’94, has become ubiquitous. On one hand I was posing my project as photos that anyone else could do, and now I see that everyone else is doing it in some manner. In ’94, I was trying to be inconspicuous by being on the street with a camera, but I stood out because I was this figure on the street with a camera and I was using it. Now, it’s hard to get a photograph without someone else with a camera being in the background. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it shows how the social position of photography has shifted radically since the mid-’90s.

WILLIAMS: I think that’s exactly where they gained their interest. A moment you and I share is sometime in the late ’70s, early ’80s, we both got involved with using something that looked like a normative or conventional display of art, but treating it as an installation or object against a backdrop, where works were very site-specific. The gallery was an extension of the canvas or a ground for painterly activity. We both saw the potential in overlooked conventions associated with very normative non-avant-garde art, let’s say.

MILLER: And an artist who uses the gallery space as a larger canvas, there’s almost an absence of rhetoric to that. Part of that, I think, relates to clear conventions of conceptual art, like the importance of the frame. You can easily go to the idea of a normative picture, to a frame, and go back and forth between those two things. What constitutes a worldview and what constitutes an ideology, I think those are probably the elements or the factors that led us to work that way.

For the full interview, click here.

Christopher Williams, “John Miller Through Time and Space,” Interview Magazine, February 23, 2016, accessed March 3, 2016, http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/john-miller

Part of Idea 005: Self-Made Man

Self-determination is a foundational cultural belief, particularly in American mythology, and characterized by faith in meritocracy, middle class self-expression and freedom of choice. John Miller’s work has frequently focused on the figure, and its life in social spaces, in order to point out the material reality that forms us all. Consumption and communication play key roles in constructing our “selves,” as witnessed by Miller’s interest in the banal and the everyday. Through his mannequins, material artifacts and photography, Miller poses a challenge: can the “self-made man” create the conditions that surround, determine and produce us?

Installation view, John Miller Maze, I Stand, I Fall at ICA Miami, 2016

The following abridged interview was republished with permission from Interview Magazine.

CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS (Photographer): I thought I could start by asking you about your rules as an artist and the different activities you engage in as an artist. You’ve been working for a while and you’re putting together a retrospective. Could you say something about how different activities affect each other and how they’ve developed over the years?

JOHN MILLER: The three areas for me would be making work in the studio or outside of the studio, teaching, and writing criticism or texts that are works in themselves or straddling criticism. Those are the different spheres. I think they can reinforce each other but sometimes it’s a matter of what distinguishes them as the mode of reception or the context that people give them. Art & Language established, a long time ago, that a text can be an artwork, or even teaching younger people about art can be an artwork. It’s just a mode of reception and context that gives it a particular definition. Maybe that can even be equated to the way the art world sees photography, and the meaning of photographs being established by the channels they move through.

WILLIAMS: Do all of these things in your daily life overlap? Are you doing several things in the studio at once, or do you have time to set aside where you mostly write or mostly paint?

MILLER: During the school year there’s a lot of overlapping. During the summer—I’ve spent the last 26 years in Berlin during the summer—things are really quiet and it’s a little more concentrated. Another area that I left out was musical activities, just to make it more complicated, that’s another sphere. But one thing that seems inevitable is to what extent it becomes managerial versus doing the thing itself. It’s less the case in Europe, but in the U.S., with high tuition and an intensification of computer technologies, teaching has become more and more managerial—organizing classes, organizing forms of feedback for the students, and evaluating every step in the educational process. That can seem a bit burdensome.

Image of a personal ad and pedestrian paintings from the exhibition John Miller: I Stand, I Fall on view at ICA Miami
Installation view: John Miller, I Stand, I Fall, February 18 – June 12, 2016, at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Courtesy of the Artist and ICA Miami.

In the studio, I’m in a phase where I’m pursuing a lot of stuff with assistants. Right now, I’m making these shaped pedestrian paintings. Put simply, they are paintings of pedestrians mostly standing on street corners waiting for the light to change. They’re from photos I shot myself, but I wanted a level of realistic painting that’s more objective than the way I usually paint. It’s taken a more technical approach to making these paintings, I have nine people who are painting things for me and they need to have panels ready when they’re ready to work. It puts more emphasis on the managerial side of things. I’m trying to sort out what that means; it allows me to make something more developed, whereas more of my early work, the facture of it was pretty simple. But I’m doing a few more simple, more direct things as well. I don’t know if you seen the PowerPoint works I’ve been doing?

WILLIAMS: I saw a couple. I’m not sure what they are, but you continue the “Middle of the Day” photographs, [a series of images taken in public spaces between 12 and 2pm].

MILLER: The PowerPoints are an outgrowth of those because I’ve reached a point with the “Middle of the Day” works where it’s both good and bad. The kind of photography I’ve done, starting in ’94, has become ubiquitous. On one hand I was posing my project as photos that anyone else could do, and now I see that everyone else is doing it in some manner. In ’94, I was trying to be inconspicuous by being on the street with a camera, but I stood out because I was this figure on the street with a camera and I was using it. Now, it’s hard to get a photograph without someone else with a camera being in the background. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it shows how the social position of photography has shifted radically since the mid-’90s.

Photograph by the conceptual artist John Miller Middle of the Day, on view at ICA Miami
John Miller, Middle of the Day, series, 1994-2009. Mac Mini with 875 photos. Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s incredible. I was trying to take a photograph in the canals in Venice and one of the things I saw right away was that everyone in the gondolas were taking pictures of themselves, rather than of Venice. So thousands and thousands of photographs go out, selfies from Venice, with very little of Venice, just Venice as a minimal framing device.

Another change I see with the “Middle of the Day” photographs is that you’ve gotten much better from the semi-skilled aspect of earlier ones. They’re becoming more competitive as street photos, in a way. I see the shaped pedestrian pieces as a way of recovering the directness and the awkwardness of earlier “Middle of the Day” photographs…

MILLER: I think that’s right on target. A lot of it has to do with technology. In the beginning I was using a more professional camera, a Mamiya, a medium format camera that you have to manually meter and set the exposure. Because of technical limitations, I might get, on a good day, three or four usable photographs. At the time I didn’t know it, but the choice of camera in some ways establishes a range of possible subject matter. That wasn’t evident to me when I started. Over time, I switched to a Nikon with auto-exposure and autofocus, and then I started with digital fairly early on. As a result, now, on a typical day, I can go out and shoot 300 exposures, so what I have to choose from is much broader. All of those things lead to a different quality of what the photograph is.

WILLIAMS: How many do you estimate there are now?

MILLER: That’s the thing with digital photography, what is and what isn’t the work? I have electronic archives and if I tallied up everything saved on a disk, that might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 6,000 images. I haven’t really counted them, even though I suppose it’s doable. It was a much more decisive thing when I was printing from negatives. I’d get a proof sheet, circle the ones I liked, and print them shortly after. Then I would have boxes of photographs and select some to show.

The digital files, many of them are potential works but in different stages. Some of them are optimized in Photoshop or Lightroom. Some of them I’ve just left as shots. Sometimes I go back and look at images and things will look interesting to me that I didn’t see upon first glance; I’d seen the photograph coupled with the blindness of producing the photograph.

WILLIAMS: Looking over the checklist for the exhibition, I was really happy to see there are so many graphite drawings of the dwellings, or real estate. I always really liked those because a vein of your work, which is curious to me, is that it’s so unaffected. It puts off so few contemporary art signals. Those drawings in particular are incredibly deadpan. They remind me of the kind of art you see in a dentist’s office and think, “I wish I could make something like that.” So unburdened by the appearance of intentionality and virtuosity.

MILLER: Someone once equated it to Hitler’s architectural studies. [laughs] But, you know, it’s fun. It’s something that runs back even to my first gallery show with Metro Pictures in ’84. I was interested in cultivating images that were pictures of pictures that would fulfill my fantasy where a man or woman on the street would think of it as an ordinary picture. I did these paintings that also had these qualities for my first show at Metro and it was interesting, the response I got.

Jean Fisher told me the only reason that the work had any credibility was because it was being shown at Metro Pictures and if you took away the context then the work would lose its value entirely, which I think was meant to be a negative criticism. But when you start thinking, isn’t that true of any art? Kim Gordon also saw the show and asked me if I had purchased all the paintings from a thrift store. Coming from her, that wasn’t meant as a jab; it was a sincere question and an approach that she thought would be valid. Later, Jim Shaw did do a whole thrift store painting show. At the time, I was thinking, “Of course not, don’t you see my subjectivity in the paintings?” I think the whole approach raises those issues.

Also, I think this was more the case in New York than L.A. in the 1980s, but there was a whole hegemony of the diptych that was coming very much out of David Salle’s work. It seemed like it was offering viewers a false conundrum. I thought that montage strategy was working as a kind of avant-garde self-affirmation and I wanted to collapse pictorial conditions back onto themselves. Rather than providing the audience with a contradiction that would point to a nominal avant-garde status, I wanted there to be an absence of contradiction and a nothingness about the work that could easily validate it in visual terms, at least. And there, I think Jean Fisher’s comment about context is right on: If I had shown these paintings, say, in a vegetarian restaurant instead of Metro Pictures, their fate would’ve been much different.