A conversation with LA based painter and curator Easton Miller about his newest work, and his vision for the new gallery ALSO.
Natalie Westbrook, Founding Editor, Lookie-Lookie
Natalie Westbrook: When considering your body of work as a whole, I’m struck by how you reflect contemporary digital screen life by evoking a kind of attention deficit, multi tasking, or notation. There’s a sense that each painting, while fully fleshed and deeply engaging, is merely a screenshot or notation within a wider zoom, a scroll down, or a larger worldview. How do you find the moments that appear captured and cropped in your work?
Easton Miller: Oh wow, contemporary digital screen life sounds far more sophisticated than my general ramblings about the how the majority of art is seen these days. Which, in my opinion, is often in the never-ending scroll of a square formatted image feed. Clearly there are various pros and cons to where we’ve found ourselves. Programmers created a formatted product that can expose people the world over to countless artists that they would have never known existed, all while simultaneously homogenizing crucial elements to the integrity of a work. As my process developed I became increasingly interested with the problematic nature of representing scale and texture through these platforms. Suddenly, paintings that were eight feet or eight inches tall were approached in the same way - eliminating the intentionality behind crucial decisions an artist makes in order to illicit an idea in the way they feel is most effective. That realization got me thinking about context and perception in an entirely different light. The foundation of my practice for the last decade is predicated around years of writing down non-attributed quotes whenever I hear something ridiculous, hilarious, upsetting, thought provoking etc. When I first started doing this I had no real intention behind the act outside of amusing my friends and myself with the wide spectrum of what people say on a daily basis. As time went by it became increasingly interesting to look back at my life in these punctuated bursts devoid of context. Eventually, I started selecting different quotes out of my books, and creating pieces based on what I’d chosen. The works became this visual representation of non-sequitor narratives that mirrored society’s curated existence through social media.
NW: You don’t seem interested in documenting these notations through mimetic devises. Rather, you embrace abstraction and expressive modes of working, which evoke a dreamlike and emotional state. And in terms of material, within the shallow space of your paintings there’s a complex layering that often occurs. While extremely painterly, your work incorporates a range of multimedia including flocking, pumice, gold leaf, and burlap. The phenomenal tactility you employ is both aesthetic and conceptual. Can you talk about your use of material?
EM: There are a few rules I’ve created for my process that I’ve followed with every piece I’ve ever made using this method. The most important of which, is that once I’ve selected the chosen quote I have to see it through to completion, or paint over it entirely and start with a different quote. There have definitely been many times when I’ve gotten to a stage in a painting where I felt like many elements were all coming together in a pleasing way, but they were not coming together in a way that I felt best exemplified the quote/impetus behind creating the painting in the first place. Could I have found a different quote from one of my books that was more fitting to the current state of the piece and slapped that on instead? Sure, but then I’d be lying to myself, and undermining the integrity of every other piece I’ve made using the same method. Why would you want to lie to yourself, or anyone else for that matter? Either, I keep adding/ drilling/ scraping/ squeezing/ removing/ etc. until I’m able to wrestle what feels like an honest appraisal to me, OR it is covered over. This then becomes the archaeological remains for a future painting that will eventually go on top of it. Which is fine, though incredibly frustrating after working on some pieces for months or years only to realize I’m not going to be able to pull that one together. In the end those pieces still serve a valued purpose to me, because some quotes are best realized when they are not started on a smooth surface – they need some baggage attached. I mention all this because it hopefully serves to illustrate why the idea of mimetic devise is not appealing to me. There is no real struggle or emotion in mimicry, only a feeble attempt to mirror the emotions of someone else. The paintings are about my reaction to/interpretation of the words I felt a need to write down, and then rendered using various materials in the way that felt most honest to me at the time. Each material I use has its own significance to me, and will surely have a different one to someone else. For instance, I first came across flocking when I stopped in to a target/decoy factory growing up in Indiana. They would pour molds of geese, deer, etc., and then cover the casts with these tiny nylon fibers in order to give the illusion of hair. Why you would need to give the illusion of hair to an object whose sole purpose is to be destroyed is still beyond me, but I guess I appreciate the attention to detail. Flocking was also used to coat the nose of my favorite stuffed animal rabbit growing up, and I would rub my bunny’s nose against mine so much over the years that it eventually wore away to revel the hard plastic beneath. I’m also incredibly interested in how to make my own paint, and what pigments are capable of. Williamsburg is the only paint manufacturer on the market that uses real indigo dye in their ‘Indigo’ oil paint – so, when I made a painting titled, “So, Rugged” it made perfect sense to me to research what went into dying denim, and use that information accordingly.
NW: I’m particularly interested in your use of wire screens, which sometimes sit on top of the paint quite sculpturally- we see the painting through the screen, and other times it peaks out from underneath, embedded deep within layers of caked oil and acrylic. A cousin to acrylic paint, the screens aesthetically work in the paintings as another instance of smooth plastic and bright color. But conceptually, they do more, carefully bisecting, dividing, and illuminating the complex layering of material and depicted space that you’re veiling and unveiling. The screens are both a skeleton and a mask. How did you start working with the screens?
EM: A large part of my practice is rooted in addressing the originally intended use of a given material through polemic gestures. For instance, oil paint was essentially designed in order to paint flesh - fats and leans in succession in order to build towards the perceived illusion of depth and light. To squeeze oil paint through plastic bags, "draw" directly out of the tube in a graphic manner, create texture by dragging and scraping various tools through thick impastoed layers – could be seen as antithetical to what the material was developed to do. In some ways it is, but my approach also unlocks alternate possibilities that expand the capacity of the medium while still acknowledging its history. There are still layers, that, taken as a whole – build to a final image. My chosen color palettes, composition/attention to edge, type of mark, material selections, etc. all serve to accomplish the same goals of painters before me – to illicit an honest emotional response from the viewer. The screens follow the same logic - they were initially intended to be used for needlepoint, but the very nature of needlepoint involves covering the individual sections with yarn or embroidery floss. This leaves certain areas pressing through the rigid surface responsible for its structure. Also, they are colored…why would a material exist in various colors whose soul purpose is to be covered by other materials?! When I first discovered that I could order a full range of colors about eight years ago I was blown away. It felt like I had stumbled onto a material that was made specifically for my brain, and had somehow eluded me until I was working in a way that was most conducive to it’s potential.
NW: Given your emphasis on surface textures, your newest paintings of hands strike me as a humorous play on the idea of touch and sensuality, as well as on the notion of the viewer seeing 'the artist’s hand’ as a part of the working mode of Expressionism. Are these literally depictions of your own hands?
EM: I think of the hands in my newer work as more iconographic than I do as literal depictions, but the success of iconography is largely based on how well a given icon can be related to by an audience. As my work became increasingly tactile the use of some form of hand continually felt like a direction I genuinely wanted to explore. I tried with a few quotes, but couldn’t figure out a way to do so without it feeling too gimmicky or trite. I had left the idea on the back burner for a while until I uncovered an old portfolio with a series of three wood block prints I’d made in undergrad - where a hand in the middle of a square shaped block goes from pressing into countless blades of grass to eventually becoming fully covered in the texture of the blades. Only the raised form under the blades indicated that something had ever been there. It was the inversion of what would happen if someone actually pressed their hand into a thick field of grass. This was the Eureka moment I needed. It also brought back countless memories of moments in my life where I’d brought my two hands together – fore finger on one hand to the thumb on the other, and vice versa – creating a movable square or rectangle that can expand or contract, in order to focus on a specific area. The first newer pieces that started incorporating the hands were very reduced, but as I became more confident in the gesture I was able to include other symbols, mark making techniques, materials, etc. that I’d already been developing over the years in my visual lexicon.
NW: You mentioned earlier the act of squeezing paint directly out of the tube as a form of graphic drawing. In these newest works, the line drawing achieved in this manner is at once bold, clumsy, and direct. It’s a kind of crude cartoon - oil paint outline that flattens the description of a 3 dimensional form into 2 dimensions. Are you thinking about cartoon, or about particular artists like Peter Saul or Philip Guston whose linear description of the body are exaggerated or simplified?
EM: Who doesn’t love Philip Guston? Even his Rothko-esque pieces are stunning. The best part about those works can’t really be seen in most reproductions (as is the case with almost everything). If you get up close to those paintings and spend a few moments – you’ll realize that they’re made using repeated marks by the same size brush. The paintings are a frenzy of chaos up close, while remaining relatively dulcet from further away. I’m as much influenced by Agnes Martin, and her ability to accomplish so much with such few gestures. If I’m going to make paintings the way that I do, what am I reacting to? Agnes left the city because it didn’t feel like where she needed or wanted to be anymore, finding whatever peace an artist can have, in a less invasive environment. Maybe I will one day come to the same conclusion, but I’m not there yet. I’ve always felt at my most natural state when I am frenetic, working on ten to twenty paintings during the same period of time (all at various stages of completion), still more books filled with quotes I’m restlessly waiting to get to as my chosen materials slowly find their skin. In terms of the graphic nature of my newer work – it comes full circle to an earlier question: I want to use materials in a way they were not intended to be used, but yield beautiful and honest results all the same.
NW: This summer you curated Trust Fall, the inaugural exhibition at your new space, gallery ALSO, in Los Angeles, which showcased a terrific line-up of 60 artists, including Amir H. Fallah, and Britton Tolliver, both painters featured in our last Fall and Winter issues of Lookie-Lookie. Tell us about the gallery and your experience as a curator working with so many artists.
EM: At the beginning of 2017 I was sharing a split studio space with amazing artist/studio husband Brian Robertson, but it became increasingly obvious that we both needed a lot more space. After searching throughout the Los Angeles area for something that fit my needs I was coming up empty handed. That is, until a broker that had shown me a different listing mentioned that she had a space available on the far east side. The far east side (to her) was Lincoln Heights, and was/is literally 1.1 miles from my house. If you don’t live in LA the insane way people consider the idea of east and west sides will not make sense, but if you have any frame of reference – Lincoln Heights is just east of Downtown/Chinatown. I saw the space, and was in love. I then began the insane experience of leasing a building, getting limited liability insurance, credit approval, etc. – it may be the most adult thing I’ve done to date. Once all the red tape was out of the way, I began laying out the open space, and putting in material orders. I hit up some artist friends that were looking for a new or better studio, and told them that if they helped build the space, and threw in some on the material cost they could pay way less per sq. ft, and would get an opportunity to curate two shows a year in the front gallery directly off of our parking lot (Heck yes there’s a parking lot). It didn’t take long to get the spots filled, and then construction began. We had the space framed/drywall up in about 5 days (pulling crazy hours), and then spent the following month seaming, spackling, sanding, etc. Fast forward a few months, and the opening of the first show, Trust Fall, was June 3rd, 2017. The space is called gallery ALSO (for many obvious reasons). I wanted to put together a salon style showcase of LA based artists in order to give people an opportunity to meet one another in real life, and hopefully build a stronger community in a city that can be largely alienating due to the expansive nature of the place. This as opposed to knowing someone’s work through Instagram, and seeing them at countless openings throughout the city, but never saying anything to them – because you didn’t know one another personally. I thought that providing a forum where someone could come up to another artist in a group setting and say something along the lines of, “Hey (insert name here), I really enjoyed your show at (insert gallery name here)!” To which, that person might respond with something along the lines of, “Oh, thank you so much! Do you have work in this show too?” Yes, indeed they do – thereby facilitating an actual exchange between people. The first show went really well, and the second exhibition The Sweet Life (curated by Jennifer Remenchik), which just opened on July 8th, featuring the work of Brenna Ivanhoe and Hannah Plotke will be on view until the middle of August. You can find out more about upcoming shows at www.galleryALSO.com
Easton Miller is an artist currently living and working in Los Angeles, CA. Miller received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a double major in fine arts and art history. His work has been exhibited internationally, including exhibitions at Ninapi Gallery, Ravenna, Italy, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany, CES Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, Laguna Art Museum in Laguna, CA, Dallas Art Fair, Dallas, TX and others. Reviews include Daily Serving, Nylon Magazine and the Huffington Post. Miller curated the inaugural exhibition Trust Fall at the new Los Angeles gallery ALSO.