Brushstroke of genius

"Painting is dead" was a manifesto embraced by a swell of artists throughout the latter part of this century. As photography, moving film, sculpture, and conceptual art evolved, painting took on the rather unenviable role of static old grandpa: outdated, unsuited for dealing with modern concerns, narrow by its very medium of simple pigment on a flat surface. University curricula still taught painting as art history, but slacked on teaching its application. Art students with no notion of stretcher frames and sable brushes graduated en masse, heads dancing with visions of Joseph Beuys and Vito Acconci. Seemed that the only people still interested in painting were those who had the cash to pick up a Picasso at Sotheby's now and then.

Or so some would have you believe.

Thing is, the death of painting was a hoax -- an urban myth akin to the idea that Warhol was a hack. The only people who really believe such tripe are the easily impressed ones, the pretenders and recent art grads who want drama so badly, they'll buy into a tragic rumor just to find an opinion. Just look at Robert Rauschenberg and Brice Marden, Julian Schnabel and David Salle, Francis Bacon and Philip Guston -- painting never went away, it just stepped back to share a spotlight with other art forms. The influence of painting has dwindled, surely, though not so much through its own intrinsic limits as through the demise of people who do it well. Come face-to-face with a real Eugène Delacroix and tell yourself that's not the coolest thing you've seen in a long while. But as long as colleges stop teaching kids how to paint, then it's up to the anomalous genius to keep the medium's lungs breathing. No one gets tired of looking at a great painting.

In this traditional locale, the idea that "painting is dead" never even made it into the top-10 list of art concerns. Aside from the shallow hopes of some of Vernon Fisher's students at the University of North Texas, painting has happily co-existed with Texas' growing fascination with other art forms, and no one stopped buying it (even at higher prices). But there are just a few painters -- a few regional favorites -- whose names elicit a particularly sharp response from art lovers: David Bates, Patrick Faulhaber, Roger Winter. And, no doubt, Melissa Miller.

The Dallas Visual Art Center has done it -- gathered Miller's paintings from their various overprotective owners to honor her as this year's Legend Award winner. This is the first time you can see her work in a 25-year retrospective, and the effect of walking into a room full of her paintings is so intensely satisfying, you'll wonder why you even bother turning on a television.

Miller, an Austin-based artist, has been exhibited at no less than the Whitney and Venice Biennials, has been awarded a few juicy NEA endowments, and has been written up in the high rags Art Forum and Art in America. But she doesn't need this establishment pedigree to hook a viewer: Her animals do that. Tigers, bears, snakes -- it all seems rather provincial in text, but their body language and gazes contain centuries of information. Anguish, transition, joy.

It's this gift of communicating, of presenting transcendence, which shoots one artist past another. Whereas so many workaday artists have nothing more to say than an average angst-ridden teenager, Miller is one of the rare ones: She has the kind of soul that deserves a gifted painter to carry its messages. Her knowing comes through her animals, and while the common description for this is "allegory" or "metaphor," the immediacy of these creatures doesn't need to be so analyzed to drive home Miller's emotional points. Why must a straining, skeletal bird represent our human suffering, when it can represent the pure concept of suffering, undiluted by flesh-and-bone concreteness? It's not so much that Miller's teeming herds of beasts and lone, watchful creatures represent us as much as they represent a larger, rounder kernel of truth: We don't have the monopoly on feelings. The whole planet, if not the universe, heaves with feeling.

Forest fauna look out at the viewer with measured serenity. They aren't so much confrontational as they are raw reminders that we share this world with so much outside ourselves. Next to it, a large canvas seethes with the activity of a procession of fantastical creatures: asses with chicken bodies, skinned horses, half-bird sirens -- all rushing off in an unspoken fit of survivalist compulsion. Tiny angels and devils drive the action onward, this world as affected by good as it is evil.

Miller touches on religious, if not biblical, themes, but only inasmuch as these work as universal concerns. The notion of great storms, passovers, crossings -- these are the fodder of every life, the deeper context of time's effect on the soul. When Miller's two giant bears sniff the air for signs of a coming storm, your immediate connection to their expression has to do with your recognition of that experience. Every soul does the same thing when faced with potential upheaval.

On the other end of the visceral spectrum, Miller paints foxes in muscular, leaping joy and sinewy jackrabbits surging toward the heavens through rays of heavy, razored light. A huge, coiled tiger takes flight over a moonlit pond in a deep jungle, his playful gaze cast down at his own reflection, his great paws stretched out toward the viewer. It is a moment of pure joy, absolute liberation from anxiety, and you have to see it to believe it.

Miller's underlying strength is her uncanny way with color and light. Her battle between darkness and light evokes Delacroix's tumultuous dramas, John Constable's outdoor honesty, Paul Cézanne's thickened strokes. Miller never depicts broad daylight -- every scenario, from the earnest quietude of deer in a forest to the agonizing frenzy of a spirit procession -- takes place in the smoky, roiling dusk or post-threatening dawn. When tigers feel relaxed enough to play, nomads feel safe to cross a swollen river, bears and snakes search the sky with thoughtful anticipation, they do so under a heaven that glows from just beneath a horizon of burnt haze streaked with aggressive, unadulterated color -- but never the flat brazenness of a midday sun.

When Miller dapples a monkey's fur with every color of the spectrum to communicate its indentions and movements, and you can stare at the creature from only two feet back and think of it as nothing less than real despite its jolting colors, you're witnessing a painter's technical instinct -- one that can't be taught. Sure, our early painting teachers showed us how to use purples as shadows, blues as highlights, but how many painters working today embellish the notions with such confident and dazzling aplomb? So many Miller fans think Miller's calling card is simply her animals, but it's as much (or more) her sculpting of light, and once you've seen hers, you understand why so much representational painting today fails to engage: Visceral content is as dependent on visual nuance as it is on subject matter.

This is DVAC's inaugural show for its new building, and how appropriate to fill such a communal, forward-thinking space with something so universal, as well as regionally seductive. For anyone who hasn't met a great painting lately, this is just the show to shake you from any nagging suspicion that painting is dead. By the looks of Miller's work, you realize it wasn't even sick.

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Christina Rees

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