John Miller’s wide-ranging critique of Western consumer society and art’s place in it now spans 30 years. It has taken forms as various as a series of paintings of the American West, installations resembling game-show sets, reliefs and sculptures composed of accretions of cheap plastic items slathered in fecal brown paint or coated with gold leaf, and a vast body of photographs, each taken between noon and 2:00 p.m. wherever in the world Miller happens to be.
For his 13th show at Metro Pictures, “Suburban Past Time,” Miller trans- formed two of the gallery’s rooms into an environment that appeared to borrow equally from retail design and William Gibson’s descriptions of cyberspace. The result was blandly decorative and strangely comfortable.
The first room brought to mind one of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical cityscapes. It was papered with a black-and-white photomural of an ordinary-looking apartment complex and contained a tall artificial tree and a large fake rock. Both of these objects, according to the artist, are the sort used to hide swimming pool pumps in the suburbs. The installation presumably functioned as an allegory for all that is hidden in contemporary life, from the workings of capital to unconscious desire.
The second gallery was furnished with a pair of plush rugs, several filing cabinets, a standing lamp and two chairs. Like the first, it was papered with a photomural, this one of a resort in Mallorca. On Saturdays, two per- formers sat on the chairs, reading and occasionally chatting with each other. The general impression was of a cozy hybrid of domestic and public space, perhaps an online forum accessed from one’s living room. But behind its promise of communal enterprise, other forces appeared to be at work. The rugs, cut in the shape of the letters “N” and “O,” implied protest. And what did the fetish-finished filing cabinets, pow- der coated in copper and pink metal flake, contain, given that in the modern world the most valuable commodity is data—much of it provided willingly or unwittingly by consumers?
Projected onto one wall of the last gallery was a series of flash anima- tions—created in collaboration with Japanese artist Takuji Kogo—that use text-to-voice software to transform online personal ads into karaoke- style music videos. Some are simple: “Looking for a girlfriend who would like a serious relationship with me,” goes one song, which is accompanied by a looped image of a car driving down a cobbled street. Others are kinky (“I’m only wearing a towel”) or self-promoting (“Why you should get to know me”).
Here, Miller seemed to present the Web as a 21st-century version of Walter Benjamin’s arcade—a microcosm of postindustrial society. But the ads themselves, even as they expose how systems of value and class hierarchies manifest themselves in the everyday, also reveal how much the everyday resists such ordering. In mundane phenomena such as these, Miller finds the basis for a similarly resistant, humanist art.
Photo: View of John Miller’s exhibition “Suburban Past Time,” 2011; at Metro Pictures.