By Albert Stern / BJV Editor
Susan Miller and I hadn’t talked since I wrote about her artwork in the December 2016 BJV, and when I arrived at her home in Pittsfield to interview her about her new series of sculptures she has been working on for the past three years, I greeted her by saying, “I see that you have been very creative since the last time we spoke.”
She answered: “Do you think I have a choice?”
My first article about Miller’s focused on her dreamy oil and pastel Berkshire landscapes and her refined marble sculpture inspired by the Hebrew Bible. She shares that this new series, “Lethal Bloom,” comes from a much darker place, born of her response to the 2018 shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in which 17 people were murdered.
The work, she says, “is an expression of my astonishment and distress at all the massacres of human beings that have occurred – Parkland was just the latest and, ever since it happened, there has been one massacre after another.”
Reflecting the darkness from which it emerged, the new work is mostly black. “My Calvary” (see image on page 1), which is on view this summer as part of The Mount’s SculptureNow exhibition in Lenox, MA, is dramatic and disturbing, managing to all at once evoke the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” in the Louvre, the Columbine killers’ black trench coats, a ravening locust-like creature, and a shape-shifting wraith straight out of your worst nightmare. Suspended on cables between two trees, “My Calvary” seems to be advancing through space in order to consume everything in its path within its darkness. It represents, she says, “disaster that flies into your life, that happens in a second – but its result is permanent. I don’t see how it could be anything else but black.
The head and hand of a baby doll protrudes from what appears to be its maw, possibly emerging from it, possibly being consumed. “The child,” says Miller, “represents the children of those who were killed that will never be.”
Miller adds: “This is very personal to me. This work came out because I am Jewish in sensibility.” She says that because of her connection to Jewish history, she feels that her role as an artist is to serve as a witness to history, to react to the hatred and violence currently taking place throughout the world. “Through sculpture, I give voice to the person who cannot speak – I take screams that are not heard and extrapolate them to ‘My Calvary’.”
With“Lethal Bloom,” Miller is working with fabric and resins, a method she has experimented with for decades. She shapes clothing and material she finds in her closets or thrift shops over an armature such as chicken wire or a found object, and then dips them into a chemical compound that hardens within a few hours. “It’s a ‘lay-up’ process, as opposed to molding,” she explains. “I do one layer at a time, and the direction of work comes to me as a go along. What I have in the end is sculpture, but I’m not sculpting.”
To a viewer, it’s also “very clear that these works are made of clothing. Females are always concerned with clothing, and if I use my clothing, it has absorbed some of me – I selected it, wore it, washed it, ironed it. And now it’s made permanent.” She adds that clothing is uniquely human, something in nature that only human beings create, and that by refashioning clothes into something monstrous looking, she conveys how humanity can be twisted into ugliness.
Once the resins harden, Miller takes the elements to an industrial site near her winter residence in South Florida, where they are sprayed with LINE-X, a durable protective coating she says she first discovered when she was refurbishing patio furniture and which, to her knowledge, only one other artist has worked with. While the LINE-X formula applied to Miller’s sculpture is stygian, it also contains a reflective component that glints in sunlight.
“Blackness is appropriate for my thinking” about this heart-wrenching subject, explains Miller, “but [“My Calvary”] also has a certain sparkle when it’s out in the sun that I consider hopeful. The way the work is placed in a spot of extraordinary beauty, amid the trees at The Mount, is also appropriate, because it contrasts the beauty of this world with what we human beings are doing to one another.”
About the “Lethal Bloom” series, Miller says: “When I made this work, I understood it would be controversial and not easily approachable. But it’s not my job to adjust to the people selling art. I make it, and hope it will convey the message I want it to convey.”
SculptureNow at The Mount 2019
This summer, SculptureNow and The Mount present SculptureNow at The Mount, 2019 a juried exhibition featuring 30 new, large-scale, outdoor sculptures placed in the landscape of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home. The exhibition is open through October 27, 2019, and is free with admission to The Mount. The show includes regionally, nationally and internationally recognized artists.
PHOTO BY LARRY FRANKEL