(Editor's note: It should be noted that the author of this piece is the sister of Mavis Miller, one of the artists she writes about.)
In Manhattan we like our art in shiny, splashy spaces - glass, white and zen in that cold, bleached and Windexed way - pristine backdrops for pleasure (or nonsense, depending on the exhibit). So, cruising up to Saranac Lake with my two young boys last weekend was a way to get away from all things whitewashed, neat and urbanely blessed, and to experience a first: an Adirondack, independent art show.
“Cycles” by Mavis Miller
(Photo courtesy of BluSeed Studios)
BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake is the host for "Tough 2 Bloom," a two-woman show featuring the sculpture of Mavis Miller and the color photography of Chrissy Thomsen. BluSeed has not a hint of bleach or pretension about it. The studio is housed in a barn: blue, long and beat. There is no doubt that work is going on. Seeping through the piles of materials is the hum of artistic toil that quietly commands, "You're not supposed to look around you; you're supposed to look at THIS ..." There are little pockets of glowing energy hiding in the midst of mayhem: artists hunkered down, a group comparing etchings to a skeletal frame, and a young man catching a much-deserved catnap on a tattered couch.
In the exhibit space, 10 minutes before go time, the sculptress of "Tough 2 Bloom," Mavis Miller, was toiling, too, and stabilizing a glazed, clay sphere on its perch with duct tape.
"It sits there perfectly, but when you approach it, the wooden floors shake and I'm afraid it'll fall," she said. Hence, her deft application of the invisible silver swathe. The remedy does not indicate Ms. Miller's art is precarious or haphazard. No. She's stabilizing it for you; she's making you comfortable as you approach it. For her (and you, once you digest it all), her seven disparate sculptures mingled with Ms. Thomsen's color photography are solid, much more than stilled shaking; they are art in its purest, communicative form.
We could argue all day about the definition of art (indeed, philosophy classes on the subject go on for whole semesters), but I've found a definition I like: the human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or counteract the work of nature. Ms. Miller's work takes you through an uncomfortable and unnatural toil - that of female infertility. Her pieces imitate, supplement, lament and even poke fun at the work that nature is not doing, in fact, refuses to do. She makes you laugh, gasp and admire.
Ms. Miller's artist statement (which could properly be labeled her eighth piece of art in the show) argues, "I've always believed that art is communication." You may be thinking, "Who wants to talk about my uterus?" She never mentions it. Instead, she takes us through a journey that she beautifully renders despite the inherent pain.
The paper-clay sphere (now stabilized with invisible duct tape) is the fulcrum of "Gravity." Around the sphere travel five little silver orbs - satellites and hopefully party crashers. My young boys believed the circling prey to be planets, but my 8-year-old rightly pointed out there were not enough of them. "Gravity" is Miller's quixotic approach to the ease with which babies are made. Egg + sperm + application of inevitable pull = baby. That is the way "Gravity's" two star-gazing admirers were conjured, and it should be so easy. Those of us able to rely on natural forces take it for granted, as we do little boys who fancy the cosmos in everything around them.
"Fertilidish," without its label, is a footed stoneware plate worthy of the top spot in your china cabinet. Unto itself, it is gorgeous. The plate bears Miller's abstract image of that perfect moment of cellular fissure just post-fertilization as two cells become four, right before a zygote is formed. The piece is the beginning of life on a platter, as though all you need to do is pick it up and serve.
"Cells" is a 9-foot-long wall installation comprised of large clay rings, each one holding its own shape, bearing its own inconsistencies and loosely, though undeniably, linked to its fellows with fragile, imperfect solder. The "cell" rings are colored a purple haze, somewhere between blue and pink, and packages of them grasp toward one another, begging to fuse. Ms. Miller used her solder to start and coax them together, beautifully, gingerly, but the mass has yet to form. The work is expansive: bigger than you, bigger than me, but there it is - every single one of us.
From these views of conception and growth, the show gets somewhat more poignant and communicative of that which fewer of us understand, the part where things don't work out. "Fertilifish" is a beautiful series of three paper-clay fish. The fish are beautifully rendered, but the largest, middle fish in the small school is stuck with needles, anemic and headed downstream in contrast to his schoolmates. "Caught" shows another perfectly sculpted fish, but he's wrapped in a mess of sticks and twigs. He cannot get where he's going - nature being his net.
Miller's most striking piece in the show is "Cycles," a giant wall installation of burnt wood, cut into blocks bearing different shapes and sizes of bicycles. Miller's irreverence and engagement of all your senses makes this work sing; you can hear the whirling. You want to giggle, but after a few moments you can only smirk. Some of the cycles are burnt through, the cycle obliterated; some are stacked and discarded, while others bear a fresh bicycle waiting for a ride. There's happiness in that, but you can also literally smell the char of the discarded bikes speaking of trials and failures. The number of those stacked and burnt far exceed spoked jewels. "Cycles" is an absolutely staggering, profound work that could carry its own show. As the fulcrum of this show it literally glows, though burnt. It's one of those pieces of art that never leaves you, for its cleverness, its beauty and because it says exactly what it means.
Frankness is Miller's work. It says, "Don't pity me, but this is what it's like. It's not pretty. It's not fun and it's not easy. You think it's easy. I thought it would be easy, too." You walk away moved. You know Miller's journey has been hard. Like making art. We all think we can do it, but for some it's much easier than for others.
Interspersed with Miller's work are Thomsen's photographs - gorgeous, full-color, up-close images of blossoms. They mark a universal beauty, one that we can all agree on. Thomsen brings us closer. Her images remind us that it's depth and fragility that creates beauty, not just color or vigor. Thomsen's photographs are the calming counterpart to Miller's work. The duo is exciting and brilliant, their work worthy of Manhattan but right at home and in its most perfect, nurturing environment at BluSeed. Go see it.
"Tough 2 Bloom" shows at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake through May 21.
Amy Jane Agnew grew up in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and now lives in New Jersey and Manhattan. She is a lawyer and is currently a research fellow in legal history at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, N.J.