On a recent Saturday afternoon in April, I met with Brooklyn artist Matt Miller in his studio at Active Space, an artist enclave located on the corner of Stewart and Johnson Avenues in Bushwick. Miller has been active in the Brooklyn arts scene since graduating with an MFA from Pratt in 2002 , although this is his first time participating in Bushwick Open Studios. After recently relocating his studio to 566 Johnson from Forte Greene last October, Miller has forged a close bond with studio neighbors, Ross Tibbles and JR Larson, who are also new to BOS (Miller learned about the space from JR).
- Artist Matt Miller’s studio in Bushwick at the Active Space, 566 Johnson
Miller became enamored with polystyrene after completing his undergraduate studio program, and has produced most of his artwork by experimenting with the properties of foam. His practice fixates on the activity between beginnings and endings, or what might be described as the corrosive decay that results from both human intervention and natural deterioration.
Miller starts with large pieces of found or collected polystyrene foam, using both flat and three dimensional surfaces. Working relatively quickly in a loose, gestural manner, he composes an image on the foam that he considers a trace of his engagement with the act of painting — Miller regards himself first and foremost a painter.
Once the image is intact, he treats the surface with chemical solvents that melt the polystrene, collapsing the painting’s support. But the painted sections simultaneously resist injury, leaving large swaths of negative space between paint and foam.
Miller patiently walked me through the multiple steps involved in his complex technical process, which is slightly nuanced for each of his series: reliefs, constructions, and what he terms retrospectives.
In his constructions, like the one below, the artist assembles thoughtful compositions with alternating pieces of foam before painting and submitting the final product to chemicals. The result is a painterly, organic sculpture that appears austere given its violent history.
Miller mixes up this process for his retrospectives, which comprise several paintings bonded together in a single stack, face to back, revealing nothing but the edge of each buried painting. As the foam melts, paint oozes out from the edge, creating a new, unified piece.
Miller’s artistic activity is an index of both material and process, but he also introduces numeric systems to determine the path of destruction. For example, in Zero to Fourteen, the melted paintings began simply as images of the painted numbers zero through fourteen. In Skull, 120 composite parts are arranged on a numbered grid. To make this large piece, Miller first cut out all the pieces and gessoed the sides and back of each one. With the sections established, he painted the image and subsequently exposed the multivariate tableau to the solvent. Miller sells each numbered section individually or in groups of two or three — a la cart — and asks that each owner installs the pieces according to his spatially numbered map. “The disintegration of the primary painting into the individual components is a means to further abstract the gestural image of the skull,” Miller explains. “The specific sections people choose not only stand on their own as non-representational fragments, but also offer them the opportunity to re-configure and alter the original composition as they see fit.”
We also spoke about Bushwick Open Studios and Miller’s involvement in the New York art scene in general.
BOS: You used to have a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. What is different about the arts community in Bushwick?
Matt Miller: My old studio was somewhat isolated, so visitors during open studios were scarce. Bushwick has been great so far, it’s very active and diverse and people have a genuine interest in coming to see what’s going on out here. It’s also been really easy to engage with other artists and people interested in art through my friends in the area, as well coming to know several of the other artists in my building.
BOS: What are you excited about for this year’s BOS?
MM: More time in the studio hanging out with friends, meeting new people, and getting around to see what other people are doing.
BOS: What was the last good art exhibition you went to?
MM: I saw some cool transitional Rothko paintings from the 40′s recently at my job. I also really enjoyed a couple of paintings by Meghan Petras who is in a show in my building right now.
BOS: What are your favorite places to eat in the neighborhood?
MM: Los Hermanos, North East Kingdom (duck ragu, tater tots fried in duck fat) and Sombrero bodega (homemade dollar empanadas & cheap beer).
More shots of Miller’s studio below:
The tradition lives! Miller’s mom (appropriately, given his obsession with foam) still sends him peeps every year. Miller still keeps an epic collection of CDs in his studio.
Miller’s guardian angel is Bob Ross. On the right – Miller (with substantial help from JR) built lofted shelves to maximize space in his studio.
Check out more about Matt Miller’s work on his website, here.