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Mark Takamichi Miller: Lost, found and transformed art

"Lost Back" by Mark Takamichi Miller

For more than a decade, snapshots by strangers have inspired the innovative, evocative paintings of acclaimed Seattle artist Mark Takamichi Miller.  His stated aim is to force the unsuspecting viewer to re-examine these casual images.

In his new show “Lost” at Seattle’s 4Culture Gallery, Miller’s large, layered, colorful paintings capture random images derived from photos taken from the rear of a canopied truck, perhaps snapped by playful children on a family road trip.             

The old film came from a weather-beaten disposable camera found in bushes in Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood. The tiny photos, also on display (“Study for Lost”), contain poorly framed, tilted, furtive images taken through the truck’s windshield or cloudy side windows revealing blurred fields and forests, an immense sky, and even a stray chicken (“Rooster”).

Miller’s paintings capture the awkwardness and spontaneity of the snapshots, the hazy light from overexposure, and the truncated framing dictated by the truck’s dark interior or a random head or freckled human shoulder (“Back”).

These innovative works employ a bit of stagecraft to create a sense of three-dimensionality that goes beyond Miller’s visceral, energetic figurative paintings from earlier shows such as “Thieves” and “Evicted.”  In each new work, a painting on transparent voile theater scrims is attached to stretcher bars and superimposed over a second painting on a reversed white canvas, giving the impression of viewing the underlying scene through glass.           

Mark Takamichi Miller is one of the most celebrated painters working in the Northwest. His art has been exhibited in venues nationally and internationally, including the Tacoma Art Museum, Triple Candie (New York),  Howard House (Seattle), and L2kontemporary (Los Angeles), and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Seattle Arts Commission Public Art Purchase award, a Neddy Fellowship from the Behnke Foundation, and two fellowships at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.  His work has appeared in many publications including Modern Painters, Art in America, and New American Paintings.

Miller also has taught at colleges throughout the country, including the University of Washington, Cornish College of the Arts and the University of Oregon. He earned his MFA in painting from the University of Iowa. He now operates and teaches at the Miller School of Art in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

Miller’s “Lost” painting series is showing at 4Culture Gallery, 101 Prefontaine Place S., Seattle, through March 29.

Miller recently sat down at 4Culture Gallery and talked about his art and his career.

Q. Why did you decide to work from snapshots by strangers rather than from your own photos? 

A. I learned to paint by looking at other people’s art. I had worked through the end of history, but I still wanted to work with something that was difficult, something that didn’t appeal to me. If you like Matisse, and you learn to paint like him, you’re not growing.  But if you don’t really like Picasso, and then try to understand Picasso through his paintings, then you get a lot more. I ran out of artists like that.

I started painting the snapshots.  They were not nice to look at but looking at what you don’t like is more productive, I think. 

In your earlier show “Thieves” you painted a series of  expressive works with men flashing gang signs, a pit bull, and other powerful images based on a roll of film marked “Associated Counsel for the Accused” that a friend gave you.

Those photos were good because they were not composed well: The camera was crooked and the people were not all in the frame. That was helpful. I have a problem when there’s a good photographer looking at composition. 

In your artist’s statement for “Lost,” you mention creating a “shock of invasion.” What do you mean?

This is a carry over of a modernist dogma.  Modernists tried to force the common people look at modern art. That’s what my paintings do. I’m trying to get them to look away from the literal images, and to look at the formal elements. People who look at my paintings are forced to look at the painting through the composition and the formal elements rather through the narrative or the specific elements of the picture.

With the invasion of privacy concept, if someone saw the painting made from his or her photos, they would be shocked and, with the shock, maybe they’d be opened to the formal elements of the painting of their snapshot — the composition, the color. 

Because I’m a modernist, I would say it’s the way everybody should look at art.  They should look at the composition and not just what is in the painting, and look at how it’s painted, not just what is painted. 

Basically, this work is my passive-aggressive way of doing this. But also, it’s the shock model of creating a sort of horror, then opening viewers to supposed enlightenment. That’s a model that psychotics or people like Charles Manson have used: to horrify someone to the point that they were enlightened for a second. 

I haven’t seen the sort of intriguing, layered paintings like yours in “Lost” before. Are other artists working this way?

It seems there should be paintings like this, but I’ve been looking for them and can’t find them.           

Who are some of your influences as an artist?

In this body of work, some of the younger people in town have been influential, such as Matthew Offenbacher and Jenny Heishman. They’re a different generation with a different view, and their work is challenging.

When you were a little boy, did you want to be an artist?

No. I thought I’d be a chemist and then a writer, but never an artist. I wasn’t a visual person at all. As a teenager though, I was fascinated by taking photographs.

And you studied psychology in college.

I did that for quite a while, and never took any art classes.

When did art click for you?

At the end of undergraduate school. I was interested in doing something I had no ability with, and that was interesting to other people. I was like a 4-year-old. I was coddled in art classes. My teachers at UC Santa Cruz were very supportive. They encouraged me and that was the whole impetus. I wasn’t ready for graduate school, but a year at Queens helped prepare me, and Iowa was very nurturing.             

You’re an accomplished art teacher, and you taught at several colleges before opening your art school in Seattle. What’s your philosophy of teaching?

I feel that anyone who wants to do it, can do it. It’s mostly attitude. People think it’s talent, but it’s really not. If you’re thinking of it as a career goal, it’s not worth doing. But if you just do it, not for external reasons, but for the sake of doing it, then it’s great, and then you can devote yourself to it.

Robin Lindley has attended Miller’s classes at the Miller School of Art.

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