Sunday, March 8, 2009

Original Differences

“Wow,” I thought, “so that’s what he was talking about!” I was standing in front of Grant Miller’s 2008 painting Untitled (EYO-937) at the Byron Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art in the Crossroads District of Kansas City, MO, looking at an excellent example of the way some artwork just defies accurate reproduction.

My first encounter with this image had been a couple of weeks earlier and a few blocks away, at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Miller had been one of three artists featured for the February “slideshow” at the museum. At the time, I’d listened with a certain amount of puzzlement to his presentation, as he projected pictures of his paintings onto the Kemper screen and spoke of “building” a painting up in layers. He likened it to the learning process, or an expansion of knowledge. His work, he said, was “about a place that houses knowledge.”

Looking at the projected images, and again later at some of the same images reproduced from on the Internet on my home computer screen, I could only partially grasp what he meant. Yes, logically, his technique of building up as many as 30 layers of clear acrylic medium, with an accumulating collection of overlapping lines, colors, and shapes, would have a certain 3-D quality. However, it didn’t seem an important aspect of the images I was seeing.

In my notes I wrote, “I look at these pieces and ask myself, ‘does this speak to me of the learning process, and evoke a place that houses knowledge?’” Even after hearing Miller’s presentation, I was thinking more about the contrast between the sharp-edged architectural shapes and the sinuous, vein-like linear elements. If I’d had to come up with an interpretation, it might have been something more on the order of the mechanical being superseded by the organic. I felt that a viewer would need more information than an indecipherable number and “Untitled” to derive his meaning.

Then I saw the originals. In no way do reproductions adequately convey the translucent depth of the originals. “Depth” is an intellectual understanding at best with the reproductions, but it is a visceral certainty when one is standing in front of the large originals. The reproductions are an interesting arrangement of lines and colors; the originals pull you right into their depths. I could imagine wandering in those depths for days.

The originals interact with light, a fact made clear by their display area in the Cohen Gallery that was suffused with indirect daylight from outdoors. If you lived with one of them, you conceivably could look at it every day, or several times in one day, and never catch all the nuances: as the ambient light changed through the day and night, in subtle ways so would the painting. No reproduction can reproduce that quality, and therefore no one who only sees a Grant Miller painting reproduced on the Internet or on a printed page will be able to understand basic things about the work.

When you view the originals you can see the buildup of layers, and grasp an idea of some of the process it took to make them. Suddenly it’s much easier to imagine the piece as the artifact of a progression or development process. His intentions begin to come through more clearly.

If you ever get a chance, go see Grant Miller’s originals in person.