The artwork of Jenn Miller is pretty.
I don’t say this blithely or facetiously. English boasts a bounty of words in the various shades of meaning of “visually appealing” and, in this case, pretty may be the best fit. As some dictionaries put it, the work is pleasing yet “without being truly beautiful.” It is “delicately appealing,” it’s charm tenuous. And as pretty hits the mark of Miller’s work, so to Miller squarely hits the same mark.
At a distance or through a computer screen, the work of Jenn Miller’s current solo exhibition Christie’s Embrace, appears rather painterly. Square and rectangular pieces resembling traditional canvases dot the walls. In person, however, the work seems to suggest itself as something much more sculptural. Heavy and thick, the pieces resemble the shape of hung countertops more than canvases.
Each composition is criss-crossed with lines, blocks of color and tight curls. This is paired with an appropriate color palette of subdued greys and whites punctuated by bright “party” colors. Paint is used in tandem with holographic ribbon and nail art rhinestones, all layered in thick resin. There is an expressive free hand at work here, but it seems to be on a tight leash of self-control–think one part Jackson Pollock, one part Hobby Lobby.
Excluding the imposing sculpture at the center of the gallery, the work is visually and tactilely slick. (I had the impulse to fog up a piece with my breath and wipe it off with my sleeve.) Miller exploits a sense of décor or adornment free of a specific subject. The pieces echo finely iced cakes or custom painted car hoods, but without the actual cake or car hood – adornment for its own sake. Thus, the work is indeed pretty and admired for it by quickly passing tourists.
However, there is also something more subversive at work in the visual appeal of Miller’s compositions. Like the texture of the work, this appeal is slick – it’s seductive yet provocative. The gallery statement alludes to this as well, calling the work “simultaneously familiar and confrontational.” Its prettiness is apparent but empty, or, rather, refers entirely to itself. Immediately upon walking to the gallery This slickness transmitted a sense of impropriety, or at least one of conspicuity. The sparkle and swirl under a factory-fresh high-polish finish feels out of place in a “fine art” gallery. Yet, it also, as Miller likely intended, provokes questions of what sort of “beauty” should be at home in a gallery and its role in relation to the art work. These are big questions and to Miller’s credit, the work is serious–it doesn’t leave much of a way around those questions to anyone who visits the exhibition with at least a smidgen of critical approach.
It should also be said that, for anyone with that same smidgen of critical approach, the exhibition is challenging. The work reminds me of a police officer who’s been in deep cover too long – the intentions and identity are beginning to blur. The pieces at once are pretty discrete objects and the agents that expose themselves as such. This tension is difficult to unravel, but also makes the exhibition worth your serious thought and conversation.
On the other hand, anyone that chooses to visit the exhibition unburdened by a critical approach, Jenn Miller’s work is at least pretty to look at.
The solo exhibition Jenn Miller: Christie’s Embrace is currently at PORTSPACE Gallery. Find more information on their website here and their Facebook page here. The gallery will be be open during the Gulfport Artwalk on Saturday, December 17, 6 to 9 p.m.