Michael Scott Miller: Traces and Trances of The Ubiquitous Universe

by Denise Carvalho


Michael Miller’s recent body of work is comprised of synergistic paintings in which black or white biomorphic silhouetted forms, inspired by archaic myths and techniques, are applied onto a gold surface. The result is a clear distinction between background and foreground, at times reversing the background from the foreground, juxtaposing foreground over another foreground, or yet creating layers of foreground in which sober colors meld with saturated ones.In this work, the artist references several historical styles and techniques, including the use of black and red painting seen in ancient Greek pottery, the application of gold leaf to panel painting drawn from byzantine and Gothic art, and the gestural, automated, pseudo-ritualistic practice akin to the surrealists.

Drawing and painting are intertwined in Miller’s work.Their connection is movement. The composition depends on the perfunctory character of the artist’s gestural process of sketching, which is integrated with the more immanent or consistent layered application of painting. His performative tracing in both drawing and painting activates a certain iconography of arbitrary and disjointed signs. Drawing as painting and painting as drawing creates a molecular structure, a rhizome, in which the particles are aggregated or segregated following the laws of involution, using the concept of contagion as attraction or repulsion. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “…unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any point,and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.”1

All Miller’s work is about short memory, even when drawing on ancient signs. Short memory means a reactive but instinctive mode that is disconnected from an established, structural source. In its short memory, current and archaic codes or images intermingle in a state of in-between-ness. In this collective unconscious of fragmented signs, one can see a smorgasbord of potentials, from anthropomorphic Ancient Egyptian myths to pop culture, from geometric forms and grids to semi-abstract imagery.


In attempting to revise abstract gestural trends, Miller redefines new potentials of repetition, appropriation, and saturation. In his drawings, gestural imagery rekindles with a child’s tracing, composing multiple potentialities and intensities. We Exist (2016) and Bifurcate (2015) are about the experience of the journey man, short memory, and the trace as part of its immediate marks in an un-accessible map, due to one’s proximity to space. The grid stands against the shift of perception, which cannot be measured to its inconsistency. “An intensive trait starts working for itself, a hallucinatory perception, synesthesia, perverse mutation, or play of images shakes loose, challenging the hegemony of the signifier.”2

The Revolution (2017) alludes to the idea of reiteration as a process of change and regeneration, but also it revisits Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return, in which the universe and all existing energy is continuously recurring across infinite time and space. In the painting, time within time or space within space can be linked to concepts such as multiplicity, molar and molecular structures, and self-replicating contingency examined in quantum physics. Bold expressive marks the rhizome as acts of contagion; forms and colors collide and react. Deleuze and Guattari write that contagion is a self-replicating condition that leads to “multiplicity, celerity, ubiquity, metamorphosis…,” all depending on the power of affect.3 The Revolution is a revolution of affection, both personal and universal. As so, it creates both a break from contagion and transmutes into another kind of contagion, cannibalizing human, animal, zoological, and bacteriological states of becoming.

When using the canvas or the panel as a skin, Miller explores three distinct ideas as ways of tapping into the singularity and immediacy of his practice: the application of gold leaf; surfing as a concept and reference; and the popular myth of the burning man. The adherence of gold leaf on a wood panel, for example, informs Miller’s search for early ideals of beauty and supernatural power as perceived in Byzantine and Gothic art. Whether in Giotto or in Klimt, the application of gold leaf is characterized both as self-sufficing ornamentation and the shifting perception of the pictorial space. For Miller, the gold is a material of value and power, but also a ritualistic, trans-mutational element that enables the passage from one dimension to another.

Surfing, another of Miller’s meditative practices, also informs his work in movements and wavy flows of water that shape his paintings. These motions are not completely arbitrary but belong to the backdrop of memories and experiences of the artist. There is an animistic aspect in the ritual that is rhythmic and carefree, perceived in connection to Miller’s motions that refer to surfing. Surfing is in the mind and in the water, since water, as a nomadic space, allows the physical, the physiological, and the conditional realms to coexist through a tangible sublime. The surfer’s proximity to water makes him a nomad, an apolitical being, unmarked by geopolitical demarcations, as both he and sea are conditioned by constant flow, by the instability of wave pattern, by tide changes from the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun.

Miller’s practice expands into lines of flight, “as tracings that must be put on the map, not the opposite. 4 Paraphrased (2017) draws on a song by  the same title of the rock band Parquet Courts. “Paraphrased can’t be quoted, it’s hard to say, paralyzed, doesn’t move, just blinks its eyes… Object, adornment, composure, a patient’s disclosure, impostor’s exposure…” The words indicate that everything is a reiteration of something else, and all histories are created with that idea in mind. It also asks for sustaining a desire toward uniqueness, singularity, in both the use of language and its interpretation. Miller’s work returns to a pre-language state, as if he attempts to trace an anti-archeology of signs inscribed in his own world of images, private, unique, singular, inhabiting a larger database of potential signifiers.

Everything is possible in the realm of the imaginary, even creating codes or signs that are intentionally arbitrary, private, logical only in their own private world. They are marks of an invented apparatus, functional within its own spectrum of visibility, fostering knowledge only outside a social language system. As in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” Miller’s decoded and subsequently recorded images are a form of collecting and utilizing left-out fragments, the detritus of a database that can never be erased but that has been excluded from the arena of functioning social encoded forms.

In Miller’s visual universe, tapping a reprocessing level of production links per formative and semi-automated gestures with a private calligraphy of signs. Like words, images have always been translated, interpreted, and assimilated within the parameters of the new, whether from one to another historical era or period, from distinct inherited cultures and languages, or even from one to another species. Even the unimaginable, in its romantic construct of possibilities, once accepted as social language, can be considered a part of the new. Linear in-between can define borders but can also blur them as they become marks of a broader and more organic map. Mixed colors, paralleling synesthesia, can also be perceived as in-between, reflecting distinct tonalities and luminosity but never able to be defined by a singular color or intensity. Thinking art in terms of in-between creates a unique method that resides outside visual conventions, therefore capable of rethinking language and image while expanding fresh imaginary potentials.

1 Guilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a thousand plateaus, capitalism and schizophrenia, p. 21.
University of Minnesota Press.
2 Ibid. p. 15.
3 Ibid. p. 243.
4 Ibid. p. 21.