March 2013, Essay by Jake Seniuk
The lone maiden in Michael Paul Miller’s painting stands glassy-eyed in the outbound lanes of a deserted rural freeway. Her outstretched hand reaches toward one of the many columns of dark smoke rising on the horizon line, about a half-mile behind and just beyond where the road lifts over a grassy knoll. Above her shoulder, frozen mid-air in stop action against the pall of creeping incineration, two snow white seagulls squabble noisily like destiny’s harbingers. A cluster of road signs at the margins interjects a splash of bright color and spells out highway warnings that have taken on a fatalistic irony in this turgid atmosphere.
The seven foot canvas is one of the 32-year old artist’s ongoing “road” series, the most recent of which are included in his Portland debut exhibition at the Laura Russo Gallery (March 7-30). The show is titled The Present End, an enigmatic rubric that announces Miller’s most recent work and presents overtones of the darkling themes that run through his oeuvre. It includes four major paintings, as well as a collection of smaller oils that serve as poetic theme studies for the large symphonic pieces, and are resolved to the same lustrous finish.
Miller's visionary tone is buttressed by his assured trompe l'oeil technique and coveys a monumental sense of historicity. His touchstones are 19th century chroniclers of psychic horror like Gericault and Goya, but filtered through the 20th century American naturalism of Andrew Wyeth. In the process he distills a distinclty 21st century vision. Something apocalyptic is ensuing here, and in most of the brooding landscapes that issue from his Olympic Peninsula studio.
The road is a central motif in Miller’s symbol-laden tableaux. But be forewarned — this is more Cormac McCarthy’s idea of a road than Jack Kerouac’s. Arcing yellow center stripes, sweeping concrete overpasses, the hard edge clamor of construction signage, fresh tire tracks raking the raw earth are the type of formal infrastructure that Miller uses to frame the spare action in his expansive terrains.
This painting’s title, Manifest Destiny, confirms our impression that we are looking upon the American frontier. Wagon trails and railroad tracks have been replaced by the interstate highway system. The climactic expression of Euro-American expansionism, these ribbons of asphalt bind the countryside into a nation and spread the hegemony of centralized power and commerce.
Borrowing his protagonist’s pose, as well as her laced bodice, from Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 portrayal of Joan of Arc, Miller invokes an earlier notion of manifest destiny as a god ordained quest. “I was struck by the spiritual quality that pervades the work,” Miller recalls about his first encounter with Bastien-Lapage’s maid of Orleans, who stands in the cottage garden lost in a trance. She’s receiving the call that will lead to her martyrdom at the stake and eventually to sainthood, in the form of a ghostly vision of herself in armor prepared to turn around the Hundred Years War.
Miller’s modern day Joan, updated with denim, is a refugee from an unseen cataclysm just over the horizon. She’s a survivor, at least for the time being. The fires are burning behind, not yet under her as with her forebear. But they’re closing in as the artist, with a bit of perspectival legerdemain, has her grip a handful of smoke from a plume rising far in arrears.
She is the latest of the dispossessed who inhabit Miller’s canvases and whom he collectively refers to as, “The Salvaged.” They seem premonitions as much as people, loitering and languishing in dystopian scenes that appear to be the unfolding or, perhaps, the aftermath of unspecified apocalyptic occurrences — clairvoyant snapshots of an uncertain future.
Michael Paul Miller was born and raised in central rural Wisconsin. One of his enduring early memories is the burning of the fields by which farmers cleared the spent harvest and readied the land for a spring renewal. The blazing orange and towering plumes dramatically transformed the vast open spaces of the fertile heartland into a seemingly barren wasteland. Later, in the memory of the artist, the tamed and scarred landscape becomes a foreboding presence, a vacuum in which figures appear isolated and vulnerable, in a raw existential state. With scant exposure to the fine arts in his small town upbringing, Miller’s untapped potential found its own metaphorical identity in these smoldering empty fields.
In his master’s thesis work at the University of Wisconsin, his taste for enigmatic narratives was already emerging in paintings where loosely rendered archetypal figures posed aphoristically in elemental landscapes. As he launched his teaching career his expressionistic brushwork soon began to refine into finely resolved renderings achieved with thin transparent and smooth stroked layers of oil pigment. His monumental canvases began to resemble Cinemascope freeze-frames writ on canvas large enough to pull the viewer into the action.
In 2008 Miller’s natural grasp of art history and painterly gifts made him a rich catch for Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, where he was appointed assistant professor. There, at a stone’s throw from the fecund wilderness of Olympic National Park, and with the news of the massive BP oil spill droning on all the airwaves, he found inspiration to relocate his fiery rings to the Northwestern topography. The atmosphere of ecological gloom, which had by now settled deeply into his imagery, seems especially dark in The Promise, his first major work in his new home.
Miller’s paintings are fertile grounds for the psychoanalyst. Therein lies their interest and their power. They dare probe into the territory of the unconscious.
Here is the youth, himself, vulnerably shirtless and spotlit in the foreground for our intimate examination. With his bare arm streaked in blood from an unseen wound, he stares back at the viewer before a shoreline that appears awash in spilt fossil fuels on the brink of ignition. The mood is black and pensive. Massive Mount Angeles looms above the port in shadow. The sky is heavy with acrid, sooty smoke that blocks out the daylight, except for a small blue patch of hope visible on the mountain’s shoulder.
Fire consumes a pick-up truck stalled on Marine Drive and is now spreading in a continuous front across the harbor. A wooden stake, trailing colored flags of surveyor’s tape that recently demarcated a property line, has been uprooted and cast aside at the lad’s feet. Murky figures in the distance have been scraped and blotted so as to fade into the smoky pall like phantom memories.
When asked if his works have a set meaning or a basis in personal history, Miller replies with a coy smile playing across his boyishly gentle features, “I seek out the gray and am delighted when my paintings raise open-ended questions that are subject to different interpretations.”
No doubt the occluded skies that hang over the Olympic Mountains have further darkened the already somber palette Michael Paul Miller uses to evoke disaster, destruction, desolation. “Fauvism is like Skittles in my mouth,” he grins as he situates himself in the sweep of art history. Indeed, the intense emotional colors and strident brushwork of the Fauves, or “wild beasts,” of a century ago are filled with crunching sounds and bright flashes when compared to Miller’s detached postmodern sobriety. Even in a painting that depicts a tremendous explosion all is eerily silent.
In his newest work a blind man hovers in mid-air above the buckling road as the world behind is rocked by a massive fireball. It is a protracted moment suspended in agar, like a frame from the action hero’s close call in super slow-mo, ubiquitous in every popcorn thriller. The sealed eyes framed by the pan-racial features of this young everyman will not divulge whether he’s asleep, entranced, expired or just sightless. The work’s multiple-entendre title, Wake, invokes all those possibilities.
“I use the figure as a way to explore the bewilderment of existence and the will to survive,” Miller muses as he contemplates the fate of the beleaguered characters who are his “salvaged” ones. To salvage is a redemptive action, but doesn’t necessarily provide the means to save a person or a thing intact. To salvage is to save the vital elements and then recycle and reform them into some thing or someone new. “To the great extent which the paintings embody bewilderment,” he further reflects, “they also hint at an underlying notion of purpose and possible providence.”
A final work, The Migration, unfolds a dystopian panorama of civilization adrift. Four men of contrasting ethnicities share a gondola that’s evidently dangling from an unseen hot air balloon. With their scant emergency resources lashed to their craft, they form a prickly brotherhood of disgruntled survivors from some ugly business — adrift over a seemingly depopulated landscape.
Miller’s works are allegories emblematic of our dawning era of diminishment and retrenching, in which we struggle to restore hope to a world whose spent resources and spiritual impotence will require new and leaner tools for coping. In the manner of true history paintings, his scenes of burning horizons and salvaged souls are imagined records of a personal, social and environmental crucible in which new paradigms of survival are taking shape.
THE SEATTLE TIMES
An excerpt of a review of the First Light exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Musuem of Art - August 2013 - by Michael Upchurch
But there are out-of-left-field surprises too. One of them: Michael Paul Miller’s oil-on-canvas, “The Promise,” which bristles with psychological tension. In its foreground a bare-chested boy stands, looking emotionally cratered, while behind him a semitransparent man (his father?) almost blends into a mountain landscape singed here and there by flames. You can’t help wondering what the story is behind it.
The Salvaged, January - March 2009, Vol. XXI, No. 1 by Jake Seniuk
If personal circumstances haven’t yet convinced us, the all-pervasive 21st century news-and-infotainment media roundly remind us that we are living in a millennial age, where old paradigms will rapidly transform or disappear. Not since the 1960s has there been such widespread awareness of history being made while we eat breakfast or walk the dog. Even here on the Olympic Peninsula, in the remove offered by our natural remoteness in the upper left hand corner of the federation, there is a sense of great witness to a very new — but still unrecognizable — future unfolding.
Michael Paul Miller arrived in Port Angeles in September to assume the key faculty position in Peninsula College’s expanding fine arts program. With a recently minted MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Miller takes on dual roles in the studio and in the lecture hall, balancing the practice of art with the history of art. Because his monumental canvases are shaped by an acute awareness of past and contemporary masters, and because his themes aspire towards prescience of an unknowable future, he bodes to be an influential mentor to budding artists, inspiring students to probe deeply into the significance of their own work and their own futures.
The Port Angeles Fine Arts Center begins the new year with Miller’s debut exhibition titled The Salvaged, comprised of aggressively large canvases populated by a rag-tag fraternity of survivors, who languish and loiter in dystopian tableaux. Realistically rendered with confident painterly control, people, objects and landscapes combine to hint at underlying narratives that spring from the aftermath of possibly apocalyptic events.
In “The Calling,” for example, Miller confronts the viewer with the image of a seemingly abandoned girl walking away from a house in flames. With her hair upswept in a bun and her face fixed in a hardened glare, she looks prematurely aged as she advances along a crude road defined by the wide tread marks that a now-vanished truck has left behind. The burning building over her shoulder stands isolated against a rolling landscape of wintery fields and smoke-choked sky. The waif’s faux-fur-trimmed coat hangs loosely on her with the allure of a womanhood she may yet grow into if she endures this current hijacking by fate. A frayed twist of anchor rope dangles from her right hand curled up against the cold, hidden within the broad cuffs of her pink coat.
The artist provides us with ample details and clues that are the elements of a narrative, leaving the bulk of the action for the viewer to intuit and invent. The choreography of Miller’s characters are traceries of an ongoing tale, but it is up to the viewer to imagine the events that have already transpired or are yet to happen beyond the boundaries of the picture frame, that hard rectangle which walls off this moment from the continuum of space and time.
But these are paintings, not short stories, and in paintings nothing is hidden and everything happens at once. The totality of the artist’s creation is always in view, for a glimpse or for hours of our detailed attention. Through skillful composition — enticing the eye with line, color, texture and rhythm — the artist sets up paths for our attention to travel. Where we choose to enter a path, in which direction we proceed, and where we end the journey are the keys to our interpretation of what we are seeing and what its significance might be.
Through controlled dynamic relationships among the elements of a painting, the artist elevates form to symbol and shifts the viewer’s awareness from the physical to the mental. When forms are locked into the language of Realism, as Miller’s are, everyday appearances take on a second nature as symbols and point to a more probing realization of what we are looking at.
Michael Paul Miller was born and raised in rural central Wisconsin. One of his enduring early memories is the burning of the fields by which farmers cleared the spent harvest and readied the land for a spring renewal. The pall of smoke that hung over the vast open spaces of the heartland left a stale stench that lingered in the air. Later, in the hands of Michael the artist, the tamed and scarred landscape becomes a foreboding presence, a vacuum in which figures appear dwarfed and vulnerable, in a raw existential state. With scant exposure to the fine arts in his small town upbringing, Michael’s untapped potential found its own metaphorical identity in these smoldering empty fields.
Miller’s notion of The Salvaged began to take shape in 2004, as working towards his Master’s certification, he searched for a personal vision. Absorbing lessons from modern American Realist masters such as Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, and contemporary post-Surrealists like Odd Nerdrum and Bo Bartlett, Miller honed his natural facility for rendering. His deft brushwork revels in its own painterly nature almost as much as in the imagery assembled from the hand’s myriad strokes.
Although coming of age when the seamlessness of digital technologies tempt the documentarian of invented history to dabble in collages comprised of visual samplings fished from the ocean of public images and pastiched together into a quilt of contemporary culture, Miller prefers to harness the power and versatility of oil paint and the long established canons that have shaped easel art since the Renaissance. The oil pigment’s rich and lustrous body, coupled with the forgiveness of its slow drying, allows the painter to build lush surfaces with deliberation and precision, positing himself as the pure and all-powerful creator of a universe of his own invention. The paint’s plasticity creates a second skin of nature that substitutes well for the Real, at almost any scale.
Miller’s large canvases resemble Cinemascope freeze-frames writ on a screen so large that it pulls the viewer into the action. He draws on a long lineage of history painting — those grandiose studio reenactments of iconic events and characters that preceded photography and cinema, and were intended to preserve for posterity the imagined and/or observed past. But Miller’s paintings seem more like clairvoyant snapshots of an uncertain future.
Following his inspirator, Wyeth, Miller uses his talent for capturing the play of light to craft strong surface textures, infusing his renderings of the everyday with psychological timbres. His dark and saturated palette yields subdued tones, well suited for conveying distressed atmospheres that evoke disaster, destruction, and desolation.
From whence do these scenes originate?” a perplexed viewer might ask while wandering through Miller’s unsettling painterly episodes. In his artist’s statement he answers with, “I draw upon moments of my youth, coincidences, dreams, thoughts, religious beliefs, and other people…” That’s a rather broad inventory of mental pictures that spill from his memory and his imagination and then fragment to selected bits that slowly compost on the canvas. Miller does no preparatory sketches beyond the broadest geometric schematics scribbled on a napkin, and the flexibility of oil paint allows him to erase and rework constantly as the scene evolves before his eyes.
There is an element of happenstance in Miller’s compositions that owes as much to Surrealism as to Naturalism. The most basic tenet of Surrealist art was that of the chance encounter, whether that takes place at a street corner or in some recess of the psyche. Like dreams or visions, Miller’s staged encounters seem governed by a hidden agenda of the subconscious mind. The constellation of scene and actors appears random at first blush, and then becomes revelatory upon deeper reflection.
Figures in Miller’s tableaux inhabit charged landscapes and are presented head-on as environmental portraits of a kind, where the subject’s surroundings reflect his or her inner state. Presenting environments that have been disturbed by man-made and/or natural violence, this twenty-something artist taps the anxiety of his generation to create an atmosphere of controlled desperation, rife with intimations of unresolved dangers. His characters often project their searching gazes beyond the boundaries of the canvas — where they meet the returned gaze of their creator (the artist) and their witness (the viewer), who are both ready to acknowledge any confession with which these survivors of one contemporary trauma or another might unburden themselves.
The Salvaged is a rogues’ gallery depicting fresh-faced encounters with the demons next door, who visit us in private when we are most alone. Even when multiple characters stitch a scene together, they may share a moment in time, yet betray no visible interaction. Each is rapt in pondering his or her own destiny like some somnambulist in daylight.
Roads figure prominently in almost every painting, mostly in the background, indicating a hope for exit from the situation. They enable the intrusion of invading forces as well. In “Overpass” a man and a woman are encountered on a concrete sky-bridge, as oily smoke billows from somewhere below, its source hidden by the barrier wall of the overpass. The orange safety-vested young woman is slumped with her back against the barrier, eyes shut to her situation. She is missing one shoe and has parked her spiked trash impaler against the chipped wall like a spear or harpoon. Her accomplice clutches a partly filled plastic refuse sack and has turned his back to her with a scowl. The interstate below races across the plains towards a murky horizon passing other fires in the distance.
Are these workers on a rest break taking refuge from a controlled burn below, or is this a lull in an accident scene where provocation and consequence wait in the wings? The woman’s splay-legged pose, the dangling sack, the upright pole, the thrusting orthogonal of the road, the acrid billowing smoke —all contribute as symbols to a Freudian analysis of sexual tensions between male and female. At the same time an atmosphere of cataclysm infects the mood that paints this pair as refugees from a larger malaise spreading across the land.
Miller’s slash and burn scorched fields imagery is reminiscent of the earth-encrusted canvases of German neo-Expressionist Anselm Kiefer, who metaphorically reshuffled the grisly aftertaste of World War II scattered over the German heartland. In Miller’s work there persists a similar tone of the consequences of mass delusion burning all in its path. To further unearth the heartland of mid-America, Miller expands his format in some paintings by appending a shelf that juts from the picture plane at right angles. Filled with charred debris it has leapt out from the canvas into the real world and created a moat of sorts that both bridges and divides physical representation from physical presence.
“Devotion” might be seen as an archetypal self-portrait that plays to qualities of character more than to physical likeness. An aproned workman has stepped off the edge of a burning field on to a swale of bare earth. He stands at parade rest extending a shovel at arm’s length like a rifleman awaiting his command. His fine features, long hair and full beard type him as a sensitive and introspective sort, perhaps an artist or a craftsman. A tire track parallels the canvas edge crossing the guy ropes that tether a blue tarpaulin hem to tent stakes at his feet, signs of a temporary shelter that has collapsed offstage, perhaps as a result of the vehicle’s passage. Behind him wet garments and towels sway in the breeze like prayer flags as a hot front of flames and smoke advances towards him across the meadow.
“I use the figure as a way to explore the bewilderment of existence and the will to survive,” Miller muses as he contemplates the fate of the beleaguered characters who are The Salvaged. “To the great extent at which the paintings embody bewilderment,” he further reflects, “they also hint at an underlying notion of purpose and possible providence.”
To salvage is a redemptive action, but it provides no means to save a person or a thing intact. To salvage is to save the vital elements and then recycle and reform them into some thing or someone new. That necessitates a process of distillation and reduction, followed by rebuilding.
Miller’s salvaged ones are emblematic of our dawning era of diminishment and retrenching, of restoring hope to a world whose spent resources and spiritual impotence will require new and leaner tools for coping. As in true history paintings, Miller’s scenes of burning fields and salvaged souls are records of a personal, social and environmental crucible in which new paradigms of survival are taking shape.
- Jake Seniuk - Executive Director/Curator - Port Angeles Fine Arts Center
THE BADGER HERALD
Wisconsin native refuses to paint by society's numbers, March 2010, by Francis Bea
Michael Paul Miller, a Seattle-based painter, Peninsula college professor and University of Wisconsin MFA graduate, is not inclined to disparage your interpretations of his work with analogies to “I Am Legend” and “Book of Eli.” He wouldn’t be vexed by any attempts at interpretation for that matter, but his claim to the post-modernism movement is predominantly dark and mysterious — stemming from a blend of a childhood infatuation with explosions, aircraft and tanks, modern culture, politics and life — and a continual work in progress since his days studying in Madison.
Miller grew up in rural Wisconsin and received his undergraduate degree from the UW-Oshkosh in graphic communications with the intention of pursuing a financially stable career. After all, artists looking to make a career of their work in modern times are relegated to Ramen noodles and dinner at McDonald’s. Despite that notion, he painted and worked for a year after graduation before applying to graduate school at the UW-Madison for painting.
“There I was studying under four or five professors. For the most part, their work was quite a bit different from what my work was, but they were able to help me think about what I was doing with my art work as far as aspects that relate to the conceptual,” Miller said.
There is an evident disconnect between his claimed military-inspired themes and the rural landscapes and stretches of highway that reach into the horizon commonly present in his oil paintings. Literal indications of the military are virtually non-existent, while rustic scenery buttressing the focus on pedestrian figures and smoke pervade throughout most works.
The thickets and farmland with the intentional semblance of rural Wisconsin are common denominators of the dark, with stretching streets and the charcoal black smoke wafting behind centralized realistic figures, who could as likely possess a Social Security number and respective passports as could be someone you’ve passed on the street.
But these pictorial identities are fictitious (autobiographical at best), and tools within the realism behind portraitures within Michael Paul Miller’s post-apocalyptic landscapes.
Clicking on the option “Early Works” under his website-cum-resume lists paintings of heavily applied paint and forceful brush strokes that delineate an almost animalistic human being in various shades of skin color, from a pure heavenly white to a beastly fur-like deep red.
“I wasn’t necessarily interested in realism at that time when describing whether it’s figure or the landscape for that matter,” Miller said. “I think it was during this time that I was experimenting more with the application of paint and its buttery consistency. These works have paint that actually protrudes from the canvas up to an inch in certain areas, and there might be raw canvas exposed in different parts of the painting.”
Although figures and landscape are individually delineated, the details of the landscape and heavy, brutal application of paint often camouflage the centralized figures into the background.
Miller emphasizes that his art is continually progressive, while change in his style is inevitable. As of the moment, he is satisfied by his current works.
“I consider it more as a part of the postmodern art movement that is based in new symbolism and realism. It's kind of a union between those two because of the metaphorical references in my painting,” Miller said.
Respectively, his current work is a far cry from his older studies that date back to 2005 and earlier, which captured the essence of the primordial being within nude figures to illuminate the relationship between nature and people.
“I was not interested in clothing but more interested in certain aspects of the individual, maybe in existentialism to a certain degree. The connectiveness to the landscape itself in terms that are more immediate and less artificial since the innovation of clothing,” Miller said.
Having taken a day job as a professor and unresponsive to requests for commissions, Miller’s work is stemmed from unadulterated inspiration, taking up to three months from concept to finished product. However, his efforts have been well recognized with grants and shows in Wisconsin museums and galleries in New York City. Despite his myriad of galleries, showings of his work and requests for his paintings, his motivation is pure.
“I don’t let (money) influence my creation process. I don’t often like to think about selling the work. I guess that’s why I have a day job as a professor,” Miller said. “I don’t try to let price or if people are going to buy it or not be part of my decision making process. I create art to create the art and not necessarily for some other kind of motivation.”
An excerpt from: Escape From New York, May 2010, by Chris Rywalt
Wait, did I say Michelle Manley had the best work in the show? I misspoke. Here is the absolute best, with Michelle close behind: Michael Paul Miller's "Are We There Yet". Michael has created a moody Goya highway going off to places unknown but probably not very pleasant. The surface of the painting is wonderfully lumpy, worked over like an old road itself, beneath angry dark skies as rough as old tar. A dim glow struggles over the horizon, and somehow it seems to be very definitely a sunset, not a sunrise. This is that one truly good work you hope to find whenever you go out to see art. If I haven't convinced you to see this show for any other reason, you should make the trip just for this.
An excerpt from: 25!, Autumn 2011, Vol. XXIII, No. 4 by Jake Seniuk
25! A Silver Milestone pays tribute to the several thousand artists who have shared their work in the Webster House and in twelve seasons of Art Outside in Webster Woods; to the myriad writers, musicians, thespians and lecturers whose voices have echoed in the resonant parabolic acoustics; and to the community of patrons, volunteers and visitors who have shepherded and/or enjoyed the creativity that has thrived on the former Webster Estate since 1986.
How to pack a sense of all that history into this modest space posed quite the challenge. For the “live” part of the exhibition one artist was selected from each year (except in three years where there are two), artists who told an important part of the PAFAC story. The choices include art world luminaries like Tsutakawa, primal abstractionist Leo Kenney and glass wizard William Morris, as well as stellar local talents like arch ceramist Anne Hirondelle and apocalyptic painter Michael Paul Miller.
With such a deep field, such a compact space and a budget comprised mostly of good will and ingenuity, there are necessarily many greats missing. There is no Guy Anderson, no Trimpin, no Marilyn Lysohir, no John Franklin-Koenig, no Gayle Bard, no Basil Milovsoroff, no Dale Chihuly. The common strain in the selections was to represent the breadth of what we’ve shown in respect to medium, style, sensibility and significance to the Center’s evolution.
To represent all the missing we’ve assembled a treasure trove of documentation to frame the original works by these representative masters. A full collection of On Center program guides weighs down eight feet of clothesline like a quarter century’s wash. The walls are peppered with scores of posters and show announcements. A continuous slide show loops through more than a thousand sparkling images of exhibitions, events and people. The twelve seasons of Art Outside are glimpsed in a grid of 56 installation photographs shot over the dozen seasons.
Michael Paul Miller (b. Berlin, Wisconsin, 1980; resides Port Angeles) specializes in paintings of dystopian visions lit by the internal light of dreams. The Peninsula College professor’s monumental oil canvases resemble Cinemascope freeze-frames writ on a screen so large that it pulls the viewer into the action. Miller provides us with ample details and clues that are the elements of a narrative but leaves the bulk of the action for the viewer to intuit or invent. The choreography of his characters is the tracery of an ongoing tale, but it is up to the viewer to imagine the events that have already transpired or are yet to happen.
Miller draws on a long lineage of history painting — those grandiose studio reenactments of iconic events and characters that preceded photography and cinema, and were intended to preserve for posterity the observed and/or imagined past. But his paintings seem more like clairvoyant snapshots of an uncertain future.
In Freeway, the latest of his roadside epics, a laborer still wearing safety gear stands beneath a demolished elevated highway brandishing a fire-ax and glowering at the viewer. Beside him two hooded figures in orange prison jumpsuits reminiscent of Abu Ghraib captives kneel as if awaiting execution. Fires consume the horizon obscuring any clues that might tell us if this is sunset or if it is dawn.
An excerpt from: The Back Country, July - September 2011, Vol. XXIII, No. 3 by Jake Seniuk
Still largely occupied by a spectacular temperate rainforest, a jumble of glaciated and snot-mantled peaks, and a wild windswept coastline, the Olympic Peninsula holds on to a corner of the backcountry in the 21st century. Inspired by and responding to the Center’s location in the shadow of Olympic National Park – the guardian of all that green and blue – this summer’s theme exhibition sets out to explore hinterlands – mental, spiritual and political, as well as geographic.
The title and central notions of the exhibition echo ideas and a sensibility gestated in poet Gary Snyder’s 1971 book The Back Country. A seminal Cascadian writer, Snyder gave eloquent voice to wilderness and has been at the literary vanguard of growing environmental awareness for more than half a century.
Along with the Center’s 2009 utopian-themed exhibition, Envision Cascadia, and last summer’s patently insular Safe Harbor – The Back Country completes a trilogy of exhibitions probing contemporary identities for this corner of paradise.
The backcountry is particularly poignant at the current historical moment as the impending demolition of the Elwha dams, near Port Angeles, focuses attention on the connections between the wild Olympic interior and the zone of habitation that encircles it.
The exhibition contains the work of thirty-two artists, selected from fifty-two who responded to a call for submissions, in which they were asked to explore themes engendered by their own notions of what “the back country” might be.
The vision is, perhaps darkest in Michael Paul Miller’s monumental canvas, The Migration, which unfolds a dystopian allegory of civilization adrift. Four young men of varied ethnicities float above a ravaged landscape in a gondola dangling from a hot air balloon. With their scant possessions, each with its own symbolic import, lashed to their craft, they are the disgruntled survivors of some catastrophe that has turned the whole earth into an unpopulated backcountry.
- Jake Seniuk - Executive Director/Curator - Port Angeles Fine Arts Center
An excerpt from: In Search of Safe Harbor, Summer/Fall 2010, Vol. XXII, No. 4 by Jake Seniuk
In 1791, when the Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza sailed down the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into a deep harbor cradled inside a protective natural sand spit, he named the site Puerto de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles — the harbor of our Lady of Angels. Among the first, he was by no means the last, to rhapsodize about this idyllic spot where the mountains meet the sea, and where the two are separated only by a sliver of flatlands on which a small city might thrive.
Later shortened and Anglicized to Port Angeles, that harbor — which is now a haven for mammoth tankers, cargo ships, log ships, the occasional cruise ship and an international ferry — remains integral to the identity of the city it spawned.
A couple of miles to the east, at the mouth of Ennis Creek, the future of a second sheltered bay — flanked by a shoreline still contaminated with the residue of a dismantled mill — indeed the fate of the Port Angeles waterfront in general is a topic presently on many local people’s minds. It is a good moment to think about harbors.
As both noun and verb, the word harbor carries a host of freighted meanings, among them:
• n. a sheltered port where ships can take on or discharge cargo
• n. a place of refuge, comfort and security
• v. to shelter secretly (e.g. fugitives or criminals)
• v. to maintain (a theory, thoughts, or feelings)
In an age where new threats captivate mass consciousness without pause, the theme of Safe Harbor is especially ripe for a broad range of interpretations, many of which have no direct connection to marine moorage, yet maintain a metaphoric link to the sea.
We offered the rubric safe harbor as a catalyst to launch artists’ exploration and we received responses from seventy creators employing a variety of media. Of these we selected works from thirty-seven, aiming to sample the breadth of ideas and approaches represented in this field.
Given the limits of our exhibition space, the short timeline leading up to the show and the vastness of the theme, we have no doubt just begun to scratch the surface of this deep notion that is SAFE HARBOR.
Michael Paul Miller’s (Port Angeles) disturbing trompe-l’oeil oil painting, Descent, is a more deliberate doomsday scenario writ miniature upon the harbor. A small arms bullet, inflated to the size of a B-52 bomber’s payload by the artist’s extreme close-up viewpoint, plummets down upon a dark and tranquil bay. A fiery dawn (or is it distant fires?) breaks on the horizon, lending dim illumination to this moment of impending cataclysm that will try this quiet harbor’s safeness.
- Jake Seniuk - Executive Director/Curator - Port Angeles Fine Arts Center
An excerpt from: Envision Cascadia!, Summer/Fall 2009, Vol. XXI, No. 4 by Jake Seniuk
AH Cascadia! Like other imaginary Ah! Places – Utopiah! And Shangrilah! to name a pair that have passed into the vernacular of optimism – the very name conjures a mindscape of the Ideal. Except this one is not lost in mists of the imagination, but may be found under the cloud cover that perennially blankets what is more prosaically called the Pacific Northwest, encompassing greater or lesser portions of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and sometimes northern California, depending on the predilection of the dreamer.
Cascadia will not be found on an auto club map, whose towns and cities populate the same country it occupies, because road maps are gridded according to political logic. Cascadia’s boundaries aren’t defined by politics and treaties, but by the more primal ecology of emerald forests, swift waters and silber skies, shared by the lands lying between the icy ramparts of the Cascade Mountains and the wide Pacific Ocean.
Notions of Cascadia can be traced back to the fabled Oregon Territory, which beckoned to the restless in the early 19th Century. Inspired by sublime landscapes, westward-bound pilgrims have often held this far-flung corner to a Utopian light. From the idealistic Puget Sound Colony’s 1890s village, which was the predecessor of modern Port Angeles, to Ecotopia, the “green” breakaway Cascadian republic imagined by Ernest Callenbach in his 1975 futurist fantasy novel – this late-tamed territory has long wrestled with its self-image as Promised Land.
Legend has it that in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln designated a town-site for nascent Port Angeles in the Washington Territory. Here the nation’s “second city,” a capital-in-exile, would be built should the Confederacy overthrow that other Washington. History tells us that The Union prevailed and Port Angeles was left to develop by its own wits and at its own pace. But now, a century-and-a-half later, while blue and red battle flags again flare menacingly in those distant halls of power, the idea of a Northwest homeland may have recovered some of its cachet. Because of its remoteness and its location at the very heart of the Cascadian zone, the Olympic Peninsula still embodies the lingering promise of that kind of ah! place.
Artists in all cultures have long occupied the role of both observer and seer, crafters of original visions of what was, what is and what might yet come. For more than two decades the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center has celebrated the artists of Cascadia, and often served as a venue for visionaries and fantasists.
This show includes the works of thirty-three artists, who live in or have roots in this region, chosen from among those who responded to a call to ponder their homeland – to Envision Cascadia! Artists were encouraged to address what they found essential about the notion of Cascadia or, conversely, to report on obstacles to its evolution. Works created specifically for the exhibition are complemented with works drawn from the existing work of Cascadian-minded artists. This exhibition is not suggested by any means to be a definitive treatment of the meaning of Cascadia. Rather, it is a first step meant to stimulate conversation, both private and public, about who we are. Here in our far left-hand corner the Olympic Peninsula is the “Northwest’s northwest,” certainly as a physical location, but also as a place that embodies many of the quintessential Northwestern qualities that have drawn so many idealistic souls to the region. May notions of Cascadia play prominently in developing Port Angeles’s identity in this new century.
The Promise is Michael Paul Miller’s first full-scale painting completed in his newly adopted Cascadian homeland. It transplants to the foot of Mt. Angeles the apocalyptic imagery he brought with him from the autumnal burning fields of his Wisconsin youth, and which were featured in his powerful PAFAC solo show earlier this year. The wounded youth, himself, is there – a shirtless foreground figure brightly lit and staring back at the viewer from a shoreline scene seemingly awash in fossil fuels on the verge of ignition. The mood is black and pensive. The mountain above the city is in shadow. The sky is heavy with acrid, sooty smoke that blocks out the daylight, except for a small blue patch of hope visible on the mountain’s shoulder. The harbor has given way to low tide mudflats glistening as if soaked in split oil. Fire consumes a pick-up truck stalled on Marine Drive and is now spreading in a continuous front across the bay. A wooden stake flying colored lashes of surveyor’s tape is cast aside at the lad’s feet and a pair of half-erased adult figures can be made out in the smoky pall like phantom memories. Could these be the waning days of the Petroleum Party? What has been promised and by whom?
- Jake Seniuk - Executive Director/Curator - Port Angeles Fine Arts Center