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Mar 23rd
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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
March 2016

New exhibit expands the arts dialogue

JArtFeature_1ohn Miller is one of a group of influential artists to spring out of the art schools of Southern California in the 1970s, a group that includes Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, and Mike Kelley.

While Miller is in the collections of the Whitney, the Carnegie Museum, MOCA Los Angeles, and Miami’s Rubells, he has never had a full solo museum retrospective in the United States -- until now, courtesy of the newly formed Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in the Design District.

Although ICA has produced exhibitions since 2014, “I Stand, I Fall” feels like a coming-of-age announcement, shouting out that ICA is a fully formed, grown-up institution, even while still in its temporary home at the Moore Building. ICA’s new 37,000-square-foot space, designed by Spanish firm Aranguren & Gallegos Arquitectos in its first U.S. project, is scheduled to open in the spring of 2017.

In the meantime, ICA is breaking other ground with the extensive Miller show, with work loosely based around the figure and the bodily experience, ranging from the early 1980s to work made for this exhibit. The first floor is filled with a commissioned, site-specific, elaborate mirrored maze; after wandering around its nooks and crannies, the visitor bumps into one of his signature sculptures, a mannequin made from multicolored fake fruit, with an arm jutting out. It’s a fun and disorienting piece, which can sum up Miller’s body of work.

ArtFeature_2Initially working mostly in photography, Miller often questioned the place of art in the marketplace, especially how and why art is given a particular value, but he did so in somewhat whimsical ways. On the second floor, for example, this exhibition begins with several sculptures in the style that first made Miller famous. They’re covered in an unattractive brown impasto -- paint applied in thick, rough layers. In another room, four large-scale pieces are made up of found objects covered in faux gold leaf. What are these saying?

According to Alex Gartenfeld, organizer of the exhibition and ICA’s chief curator, they resulted from Miller’s surprise at the sales of his artwork. What is the value of a brown blob? Gold, of course, has been associated with wealth for millennia, but these works are made up of discarded items and then “washed” in the color.

Gartenfeld says that Miller -- who is also a professor at Barnard College -- really works under the guidance of the overarching theme of social realism, with roots in early 20th-century politically motivated art, ranging from the Soviet Union, where “socialist realism” became an official art of the state, and to the WPA projects. He started looking for works that capture that concept in collections and museums for the show. Miller was also an active participant.

ArtFeature_3One wall is covered with photographs from a series of Miller’s, The Middle of the Day, which he began shooting in 1994 and continues into the present. Photographers generally avoid working in the midday, explains Gartenfeld, because the light is too dense. But Miller, who divides his time between New York and Berlin, wanted to capture lunchtime, when workers would be out in the streets. In this case, he is questioning the value of time, and how average people spend it. Interestingly, you can look down at the maze from the second floor, and watch people moving around like those in the photos.

One new work that covers an entire wall is a wallpaper rendition of street scenes from around Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the large square that was formerly the hub of East Berlin.

His paintings come closest to what we consider social realism, including colorful portraits of the Black Panthers. One disturbing video shows mannequins falling off a cliff, being smashed along the way, but it’s not as dark as it seems. Miller is poking fun at what we create and how we relate to those objects. There are also stills from reality shows, and an intriguing series of photos (shot by another photographer; Miller likes collaboration) based on old personals from newspapers.

Kudos to Gartenfeld for pulling off an exhibition that expands the scope of Miami’s art dialogue. The ICA will continue to concentrate on contemporary art from a wide variety of sources, he says. For instance, over the summer ICA will feature four solo shows, including one from Ida Applebroog, a 1998 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient; and New Zealand artist Susan Te Kahurangi King.

ArtFeature_4Those are fascinating choices from a museum whose beginning was less than savory. After director Bonnie Clearwater left the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA) in 2013 for Fort Lauderdale -- and after North Miami voted down a bond issue to expand MOCA -- most of the directors followed her lead and split, taking with them a good chunk of the museum’s collection. They wound up in the Design District, where auto magnate Norman Braman and his wife, Irma (co-chair of the ICA board of trustees), are funding construction of the permanent ICA facility on land donated by developer Craig Robins.

The whole episode left an ugly taste in the community, and an anemic MOCA to function on fumes. ICA, on the other hand, developed a lecture series, performance-art programming, and educational outreach; last month ICA hired well-regarded local Gean Moreno as curator of programs.

Also recently, ICA landed a permanent director, Ellen Salpeter, who came from the Jewish Museum in New York. Salpeter says she realizes Miami is unlike other cities, but that’s a plus.

“Miami’s contemporary art landscape involves a unique interplay among private collections, commercial galleries, and public institutions,” she says. “Miami has also seen a rapid growth in interest in the arts over the past ten years, which has led to a growing base of support for the many roles that museums play in the community. For an institution like ICA Miami, which provides an important, new resource for the community, it’s a very exciting time.”

ICA’s original programming, she says, “fills a void in advanced educational programming for teens and adults in Miami, with interdisciplinary curriculums focused on exploration, new media, and identity.”

With the new, much bigger museum space, Gartenfeld says, “we will be able to expand the literacy of Miami’s art world.”


John Miller, “I Stand, I Fall,” through June 12 at ICA Miami, 4040 NE 2nd Ave., Miami. Free. For information on lectures and programming,


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