The Zen Master and the German Engineer
Jungles, Deserts, Psychedelia, Spreadsheets
courtesy of the artist
Jesse Paul Miller's new paintings showing at Wall of Sound are more piled on the wall than hung, congregating above stacks of records, music wafting over them. They buzz with thepsychedelic color of Indian miniature painting or Japanese artist Yokoo Tadanori's posters: lotus pink, lemon, lime, rare-meat red, peafowl blue. Miller has been a regular on Seattle's avant-garde music and art scene for years, making idiosyncratic yet egoless art and music—now only more so.
"In the last few years, my whole perception of everything broke up," he says, after having spent months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, and Japan.
This new work explodes with color. The subjects of each painting are neither separated from each other nor entirely distinguishable from their environments. Each thing—a crowd of faces, a lush jungle, scaly skin, sparkling flowers, floating contoured figures—is defined by the other things, too. It's a visual equivalent to the Zen saying that if you don't call a cat a cat, it becomes much more than a cat.
Expressionistic drips streak across canvases rather than down—Miller rotated the canvases and covered over some images entirely, with his intuition as his guide. The layers upon layers are still visible, and it's not clear which came first. Drips are overpainted with patterns of spirals and swirls; they give the appearance of being marks on a surface and also being the wallpaperish surface itself.
There are small, colorless, inexpensive prints, too, little labors of the hand. One, called Indian Ocean, presents the ocean as a field of interconnecting puddles stretching to the horizon. The slightly wavering lines of the puddles are obviously hand-drawn, but all are workmanlike, none unique: This universe is a place where all material is made of the same stuff.
"Ninety-nine percent of an atom is just space," says Chris Engman, talking about Dust to Dust, his new show of photographs at Greg Kucera Gallery. Engman's work, like Miller's, is the result of travel, meditation, and work. But the two could not be more different.
Engman drives far into the desert where there are no human-made structures, sets up sculptures on the sand using building materials (plywood, cinder blocks), and takes photographs and videos capturing the interaction between natural rhythms and the artist's interventions. For instance, a cinder-block arrangement is inverted from one day to another, but the blocks are placed on the exact same piece of land. They are filmed at the same time on different days, and played back on two side-by-side screens. One day was cloudy, the other clear. As the clouds move over one, breaks of sun momentarily reveal shadows that precisely mirror the shadows on the other screen. The irregularity of the clouds and the jagged mountain edges are no match for what comes across as a deeper, reassuring order, of the light falling from the distant sun all the way down onto the small surfaces of the cinder blocks.
"It's my order laid over a natural order," Engman says. And it's a lot of order. Engman plans and executes with the intensity and precision of a German engineer. Spreadsheets, charts, and measurements are involved. There's a structural as well as a visual neatness to these staged documents that can come across as ambitious but feel underwhelming.
But there are funny and endearing moments, too. Senescence (meaning the aging of cells) is a diptych. In each photograph, a pile of logs sits behind an unidentified building (this is in the smaller "city," not "desert," section of the show). In the picture on the left, the logs sit in a pyramid with ends facing the viewer. In the next picture, the logs sit the same way but they're no longer whole. Each log is now a reassembled puzzle of itself. Engman chopped them apart, marked the parts with a letter and a number, and reassembled them—with the letters and numbers visible—tying the whole pyramid together with rope. Engman took the time to demonstrate what all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't do, but insisted on trying.