On "Aids to Contemplation of the Republic"
The now ubiquitous lapel pin appeared on September 12, 2001, as the Bush administration began whipping us into a frothing nation of stunned, wounded animals ready to shock and awe Afghanistan and then Iraq. The extent of the blood and treasure we have spilled is a willfully unknown known at this point. Equally unknown is the extent to which our invasions served to compound the conditions which led to the 9-11 attacks in the first place.
I do not take issue with those who display the stars and stripes as a conventional expression of love of country, pride in citizenship, respect for the necessity of armed service personnel loyal to the Constitution, and optimism that the arc of history bends toward justice. But these crazy times demand deeper examination of the norms and assumptions underpinning love, pride, respect and optimism.
The flags in this exhibition, in contrast to the flags donned and waved by this country's current amalgamation of self-proclaimed nationalists, are emblems of this nation’s complex, evolving, and often contradictory principles and stories. Many of our more promising principles and revealing stories are under attack by those unwilling or unable to see the problematic past and human potential of the republic.
These paintings are developed using the flag as a strong and richly textured ground for free expression and democratic experimentation. The power of the emblem beneath the paint fortifies the artist’s first amendment rights. My aim as a citizen-artist is to push through status-quo expectations and open up clearings for creative new possibilities. Our global predicament urgently requires reconsideration of this emblem and the republic for which it stands. Furthermore, I encourage citizens and residents of countries everywhere to constructively question and engage their national emblems, reclaimng them as a counterforce to leaders and militants who trivialize, distort, manipulate, and accessorize national identity for vile, villainous schemes.
Apollo on the Hudson, 60 x 84 in, Oil on linen, 2016
We humans live life pushed and pulled between the requirements of nature and culture. Navigating the infrastructure of the civilized, industrial world, we suppress wild longings for the freedom of the hills and the thrill of swimming out past the breakers. This feral feeling of being simultaneously inside and outside of nature, civilization, mind, and self… attached and unattached… profoundly concerned but resigned to oblivion… It’s what mixes and moves the oil paint on my palette and canvasses much as it did for Courbet, Bellows, and Marin. Oil point is the stardust mush of human expression.
Aids to Contemplation of the Republic
This series of fifteen "Aids to Contemplation of the Republic" runs on a rugged, jazzed-up blend of Pete Seeger patriotism and transnationalism. They acknowledge our nation, our land, and our government’s peculiar depths and complexity while still regarding the flag and republic as creative, life-affirming expressions of human nature protected by fundamental human rights.
These oil paintings are expressions of love and concern for our republic. The fabric of our sewn stripes and embroidered stars transform into an intimate pathway to contemplation in a civic vein. The greatest task and challenge for any artist is to break open easy assumptions and to nurture epiphanies by presenting novel angles on our world. These works are not conceived of or presented in a spirit of desecration or defacement. They are painted with love in the pursuit of peace. The Moby Dick-themed pieces are ruminations on Captain Ahab’s tragic destruction of self, ship, and crew in unhinged pursuit of a power beyond his understanding. I aim to heighten our awareness of and intimacy with the beauty and mutability of what we have.
Pete Seeger: The Torn Flag lyrics
At midnight in a flaming angry town
I saw my country's flag lying torn upon the ground.
I ran in and dodged among the crowd,
And scooped it up, and scampered out to safety.
And then I took this striped old piece of cloth
And tried my best to wash the garbage off.
But I found it had been used to wrapping lies.
It smelled and stank and attracted all the flies.
While I was feverishly at my task,
I heard a husky voice that seemed to ask:
"Do you think you could change me just a bit?
Betsy Ross did her best, but she made a few mistakes.
My blue is good, the color of the sky.
The stars are good for ideals, oh, so high.
Seven stripes of red are strong to meet all danger;
But those white stripes: they, they need some changing.
I need also some stripes of deep, rich brown,
And some of tan and black, then all around
A border of God's gracious green would look good there.
Maybe you should slant the stripes, then I'd not be so square."
I woke and said, "What a ridiculous story.
Don't let anybody say I suggested tampering with Old Glory."
But tonight it's near midnight, and in another flaming town
Once again I hear my country's flag lies torn upon the ground.
The messy entanglement of human bodies, industrial infrastructure, wild terrain, non-human critters, and domestic spaces is my constant preoccupation. It is in the feral, punctured headspace between our leaky notions of nature and culture that creative genius is awakened. My art interweaves human figures with their gritty surroundings and psychological interiors in order to play with permeations of the self and the spaces and substances inhabited and absorbed by the self. Where does one stop and the other begin? I love the fact that I can carry my easel and canvas on my back and apply my oil paints outside, loosening and occasionally losing myself in sprawling tangles of woods, factories, rivers, overpasses, and changing weather. These paintings are my lamentation and celebration of wildness enduring in a world where oil painters are the watchful companions and coy beneficiaries of industrial capitalism’s rapacious, endlessly resourceful tyranny.
Edward Bear Miller
I am mesmerized by the entanglement of humans, industrial structures, landscape, and history. My paintings mix people with patches of landscape that are historically or personally resonant. Landscape, for me, comprises all the gritty spaces that our eyes and spirits can roam, including the interiors of my house and studio, the great blue ocean, the Milky Way, a sewer, a highway, or the woods over there. History, for me, comprises the great sweep of linear time, including what is yet to come. Traditional landscape painting has not embraced the messiness of our bodies' entanglement with all the objects, spaces, and time-frames from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Where does one stop and the other begin?
Edward Bear Miller
December 15, 2014
New Paltz, NY
I paint as a means to connect with the visible universe surrounding me and the less visible universe within me. Often a pretty picture results, but painting pretty pictures is not my primary objective. I am immersing myself in the stuff of existence, in relationships of color, contour, and position in space. In my paintings these relationships merge and overlap with memories, urges, ideas of right and wrong and what is beautiful. When painting landscapes and figures, I generally work quickly, in the tradition of John Marin and George Bellows’ early work. Vigor, efficiency, gesture, and half-mixed paint are my allies. The less I think and just let it flow, the more I get done and the better the end result. It’s a magical moment when I emerge from a creative trance and decide to stop painting a canvas. Sometimes I know the painting is beautiful. It’s a record of my mind’s encounter with a piece of the visible universe. Often the results are terribly disappointing and I put the canvas away to dry and bring it out months later only to realize that it ranks among the most beautiful work I’ve ever done. My success depends on the ability of my painterly instinct to swim freely between the visible world and my inner realms. In recent months, wild narrative creatures are creeping and swooping from my inner realms into the larger studio canvasses I have been constructing to contain my dreamier visions. These paintings represent a primordial realm inhabited by archetypes: ancient fish, waterbabies, water serpents, fellow primates, ancestors, and the occasional songbird. I want my canvasses to contain the tragic collision occurring between my adoration for life’s earthy elements and our lofty, freefalling historical condition.
Edward Bear Miller
Excerpt from an old 2007 email to Bob Stark, two years before I quit teaching:
Painting is a visual, mental, and spiritual exercise. It is an athletic/technical discipline, a dance of the eye, the mind, the palette, and the hand. The canvas is the stage and the landscape/subject form the set/cast. The paint is the words and motions and thoughts of the painter/actor.
Painting is a voyage through reality to the core of being, a reflection of the artist’s internal life and power to process the external. Painting is a creative voyage, an extended and focused ride on the interface between the painter’s internal organism and the universe of time-space, matter and light. All are in constant flux, presenting the paradoxical challenge of generating a fixed, static record of the voyage onto a given canvas, a canvas that itself changes very little over the course of a lifetime, though its appearance changes according to the light and according to the personalities of different viewers. Even the shifting moods and ongoing maturation of a particular viewer change the canvas’ appearance.
The painter is a dynamic being, just as the landscape (or whatever objective subject matter, or subjective idea or fantasy) is dynamic. The painter (and all of humanity) is from nature, immersed in some (manufactured/distorted) variation of the natural world, dependent upon nature, and ultimately fated to return to nature. My paintings are about my attempts to directly confront nature and to express what I find, both my own internal nature and the natural/manufactured world around me. I’m also increasingly interested in painting loved-ones, especially my wife (and I want to paint my parents). Paintings of people I know well reflect the essential experience of being human, immersed in human relationships. Such paintings explore emotions, the effects of time and space and light upon the flesh. They speak of love and detachment and the struggle to be free while embracing the people around us.
My paintings are a record of this encounter between my being (mind, visual apparatus, and spirit) and the external world. Landscapes and figures generally speak to me more than buildings or machines, and I generally find I want to paint these natural, emotionally therapeutic/inspirational forms more than the lifeless and deadening forms of buildings or machines… but all of these—landscapes, figures, buildings, and machines— are very much the sort of subject matter that interests me as a painter. Ultimately, the juxtaposition between figures, landscapes, machines, and buildings would be a marvelous combination of subjects for me, but my limited talents and time prevent such grand explorations for now.
When I paint, I project-- through paint and brush onto canvas-- my vision of my self and my world. What is brushed onto the canvas is a projection of a combination of what I actually see and what I think I see and what I want to see and what I have seen. All of this is constructed and directed by the faculties of my mind, which is laced with ideas, hopes, memories, regrets, worries, loves, repulsions… all of which color and layer my experiences and impressions of the external world which my mind is processing.
This creative exercise in projecting my vision is a meditation, the product of which is very concrete, very physically real, very much available for public scrutiny. It reflects very fundamentally what/who/where/when I am, and is thus an intimidating exercise in truth and self-confrontation on a very human, intimate level. Hanging one’s work in the community becomes a scary prospect, especially if the work is really supposed to contain all this heady, heavy, heroic stuff, if it really is supposed to reflect and project my vision of myself in the universe.
My work is a record of my particular voyage through a particular landscape, on a given day with particular subjects and concerns being the focus of the journey. As with snorkeling or hiking or meditation or hatha yoga or rock climbing or cooking, some days of painting are better than others. Certainly I want to do my best under any and every circumstance, but some days I’ll strike gold almost effortlessly, experiencing pure and productive pleasure, my brush breathing life while I relax and go along for the ride. Other days I’ll persistently dig and dig and sweat and dig, only to find myself exhausted and covered in shit. Such is life, and such is painting.
My aim when I’m out there (and indeed in here, in my head, as painting is for me very internal), is to process the reality of being alive, of being at my particular point in the space-time of the universe, of being at my particular point in my life, my memory, my mind, of my particular point in my struggle for enlightenment/happiness/freedom. All of these: landscape, mind, spirit… have form, line, and color. All can be translated into the language of painting. Painter and viewer are nourished by the exercise. Ultimately, we are all seeking the experience of being alive, of knowing the nature of reality, of feeling peace, happiness, and liberation. This seems to be everyone’s goal—I know it’s mine-- and painting is a means to this end, a tool and record of the quest for enlightenment. At the end of each sketch/painting, a tangible product of the process has taken form. It hangs on a wall for the painter to examine and contemplate. It’s a record of where he is and/or has been, giving him ideas about where he wants to go. Maybe the public sees something in it that inspires or that brings peace or that seems to echo with the sounds of freedom or struggle. Somebody buys it and lives with it and continues to find solace/inspiration in it. The painter has done a service not only to himself but also to the public.
Cezanne seemed to achieve this. Van Gogh and Gauguin were succeeded. The Westons from 1922-1924 really do it, the later ones also, but less so. John Marin was the hilltop king of superfresh encounters with landscape. Bob Stark is maybe the most successful contemporary painter I can think of in this regard. Birchfield, Manet, and Courbet are all gold-medalists in my book.
Looking at Jasper Johns’ work yesterday at the National Gallery, I saw a lot of empty gimickery and it made me very sick and sad for him and his admirers. It is art about art, with (as far as I can tell) nothing to do with humanity or the nature of reality or the struggle of the spirit or the nuances of the natural world or even any resonant facets of the human mind. Johns produced art that reinforces spiritual bereftness. I don’t feel the same way about his buddy Bob Rauschenburg, who clearly has a higher regard for spontaneity and for the dharmic, culturally rich and wacky twists of the American experience.
March 18, 2007.