Tom Miller: Portraits of Life
By Genie Davis
Tom Miller’s beautiful Road Portraits and Rogue Portraits, works which were recently in exhibition at Trunk Gallery, are what the artist calls a “synthetic continuation of a tradition, with myriad, simultaneous influences…”
Creating a series of self-portraits in the style of Edouard Manet in the former series, and referencing Rembrandt in the latter, Miller is a dramatic, rich, and lush artist with a prolific body of work.
Asked what has brought his portraits series to a reference of classic arts, Miller says that, “using the tricks and tracks laid down by artists throughout history is fundamental for me as I make paintings. Paraphrasing Diebenkorn, I am mindful of doing something new each time I start a painting, even though I am using a form that is thousands of years old.”
After primarily working from his imagination for 25 years, he returned to his original work style, drawing and painting representationally with his series of self-portraits.
“Enter the honesty of observational drawing and painting to counter a world conjured by my imagination,” Miller explains.
He began to sketch and photograph friends and strangers alike while traveling, and captured images that allowed him to create still life and landscape work as well.
“Over the last three years I have given myself permission to go back to what initially inspired me as a young artist, combining my love for gestural brushstrokes, vivid color, and compositions that I discovered in the exhilarating marriage of drawing and painting from Manet, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec to Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn.” Artists who used their prowess to celebrate humanity and capture the spirit of their times.
Miller’s palette is vibrant in these works, and appears to be a conscious heightening of the very human story he is telling. The artist says he has always loved looking at paintings that push the elements of color.
“I have been making more conscious decisions about grouping different values and using counter-intuitive approaches to warm and cool colors. I like using highly saturated color passages to arrest the audience and lull it into the arms of a magical, heightened reality. As I want the paintings to have the presence and pull of living organisms, color plays a pivotal role in bringing an irresistible, eye-catching vitality to the figure in its intoxicating space.”
In an earlier series, “Dark Money,” Miller went a completely different route in terms of palette.
“Dark subjects for me require a dark palette. The ‘Dark Money’ ink drawings on dollar bills, along with dozens of expressionistic cartoons ridiculing Trump and his regime, came out of a socio-political necessity for me as an artist and human being, channeling the bile and style of George Grosz.”
The work in this series also represents what Miller terms “cathartic breaks in my work on the road portraits.” The pieces are direct, angry, and quick to create, according to the artists, and best-served by a limited palette.
He adds “My foundation as a young artist was packed with art history, with a visceral affinity to German Expressionism and a variety of historical and contemporary political cartoons, from Daumier to Paul Conrad—artists who spoke truth to power.”
Miller explains that his color palette shifts dramatically in each of the series of works he creates. Today, Miller relies on nature’s complexity and honors his eye for color over his mind’s vision.
Miller has been drawing since the age of two, and was taken regularly to museums by his mother as a small child, whetting his passion for art.
“I was hit by lightning as a five-year-old when I first saw Van Gogh’s portrait of Patience Escalier in the Norton Simon Museum, suddenly realizing that a painting could not only represent a profound sense of humanity, lifting a peasant man to the stature of a nobleman, but also be a writhing, living entity by itself,” he explains.
Today, what Miller most wants viewers to know about his work is that his compositions are meticulously planned, despite the fact that he may find the final structure of a work over time.
“I want the arrangement of lines, shapes, and colors to become a visual game for the audience, who may be seduced by the puzzle consciously or unwittingly.”
As a take away, he says, “I want viewers to have an active relationship with a painting where the viewer feels that he or she is completing the circuit and bringing the work to life by interacting with it visually. I want people to walk away with the feeling that they are being watched by my subjects – whose eyes incidentally follow you as you walk around the gallery – and given just enough information to form their own narratives from the experience.”
What’s ahead for Miller? First, he’s working on a catalogue for his series of playful, intimate expressionistic self-portraits, six of which were a part of the recent show at Trunk.
Second, he intends, “to keep making paintings with the road as an anchor for portraiture, while I begin work on portrait illustrations for a friend’s book about Los Angeles.”
The road may call, but we must hope for a detour to another exhibition, and the chance to take a long look at Miller’s vibrant oeuvre.