Thursday, August 19, 2010

Weightless in Canton

Weightless in Canton

By Tom Wachunas

Aegolius was pacing about, nervous and anxious. He couldn’t wait to talk to Nyctea after her visit to the city. When he saw her approaching, he ran right up to her and nearly knocked her down.
“Well, so now you have to tell me,” he blurted, out of breath, “what… did you think… of Pavo’s… new work? Everyone’s… talking about it!”
“Yes, I know,” Nyctea replied wearily. She was very tired and didn’t feel like talking, but Aegolius pressed her harder.
“C’mon then, what did – “
Agitated now, Nyctea interrupted, “It’s not a new work at all,” she snapped. “Pavo’s been making the same piece for 50 years.”

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit -

He has enamored himself to a dramatically growing number of fans and purveyors of public art in recent years, garnering such affectionate monikers as ‘The Grizzled Wizard of Recycling’ and ‘The Junkyard Pied Piper’. P.R. Miller is baaaack.

If Miller’s life is ever made into a movie, some weisenheimer filmmaker just might insert a scene parodying the classic 1940 film of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” I can see it now. Like Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in his farewell scene, the character of P.R. Miller peers into eternity and intones, “I’ll be around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s scraps ‘o trash no one wants, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a town that wants junk art, I’ll be there.” And he’s here again in downtown Canton with yet another of his critters made from recycled stuff, this one called “Shutterbug,” located in the parking lot across the street (the 500 block of Cleveland Avenue NW) from the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography.

Based on comments I’ve heard from Miller in the past, he doesn’t seem to care deeply for art history or academically-couched assessments of his art. Such disdain notwithstanding, I’ve always viewed his work as heavily indebted to Picasso’s more playful assemblages of found materials. It’s an esthetic with a ‘distinguished’ history, though in the vast compendium of modernist content and methods, a fairly toothless one in terms of truly remarkable art.

That said, I don’t want to come off as too venomous, or dismissive of Miller’s work per se. In all its colorful gaiety and variety of textures, it does possess, as the clichĂ© goes, a “certain je ne sais qua.” And at times, its formulaic, low-brow charm might well be an inviting introduction for casual viewers to embrace sculpture at a rudimentary, ‘entertaining’ level.

Still, in all the hooplah about art made from recycled materials, I wonder why going green seems to result far too often in art that looks so downright chincy, so…green. As in simplistic, predictable, and cerebrally lightweight? This kind of sculpture (with the exception, perhaps, of Pat Buckohr’s thrilling Rhino made from tires) has sufficiently dotted the arts district in the past.

Aside from its name and proximity to the Saxton Gallery, Miller’s concoction has no clear relationship with photography, though it was funded by Saxton owner Tim Belden. “Shutterbug” is a 15 foot-high, 4-legged metal creature fashioned after a bee. Its abdomen is streaked with paint applied in a slap-dash manner. Arguably its most clever attribute can be seen in the wings that flutter in the breeze. Alas, I think it won’t be flying away soon. Yes, it’s somewhat cute, and whimsical, and fun. And there’s certainly something to be said for decorative art that brings a smile. For all of its imposing scale, this creature is harmless, but nonetheless one pest among others in the downtown landscape. So call me a humbug, but enough already.

Photo: “Shutterbug” by P.R. Miller, sculpture from recycled materials, located at the corner of Fifth Street and Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton.

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