The Riverscapes of Ben Miller

Consider that the central project of Modernism has been how to show flow, of somehow expressing the endless perspectives of a fractured phenomenal world with no single point of view. Time is motion, Einstein said in 1906, and position dictates perception. William James, as early as 1890, proposed that consciousness is a stream, that awareness is a few flickering seconds between a collapsed past and an unknowable future.

You would think then that the kinetic nature of water would loom large in Modern Art. But that’s just not so. Granted, it’s hard to draw. Da Vinci’s notebooks have excellent studies of churning water, but here, as in so much else, Leonardo stood out for centuries to come. Japanese artists paid close attention to the realm of water; great waves and endlessly curling eddies defining a suspended reality for humans and deities. Woodblock prints of these and other subjects appealed greatly to proto-modern painters like James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet, both of whom paid famous attention to rivers and ponds.

In America, Hudson River landscape painters, active when the West was back east, described a frontier of shimmering green and gold canyons and plains. Water’s role was to reflect, to highlight an awesome beauty. It was placid, decorative, part of a wider esthetic appeal. Over in Europe, Romantic painters of the mid 19th century favored dark and stormy seas, of rafts and shipwreck, tragic settings of human drama. Still, as early as the 1820s, the Englishman JMW Turner dared to represent the ocean on its own terms, of vanished horizons and hazy perspectives, slashes and splashes of color in bright encompassing voids. Turner was on to something very modern, but for that was dismissed at the time as something of a brilliant crank.

As the 20th century unfolded, writers had an easier time grasping flux, using stream-of-consciousness for works of engaged perception: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury outstanding among many. Concurrent with them, painters and sculptors considered motion on dry land, nudes descending staircases, kinetic sculptures hung from ceilings; the streamed lines of Art Deco and Futurism. Midcentury Americans Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning used pigments to record the propulsion of gestures and ideas, the Action of their Action Paintings taking place near the surface of big canvases. Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming, said his first purely abstract painting, the enormous Mural, represented a cattle stampede, that is - a rushing river of livestock.

The infinite forms and flux of water remained a challenge. Monet’s American contemporary, Winslow Homer here stands out for the close attention he paid to the desolate grandeur of ocean and shore. His later countrymen, Rockwell Kent and Andrew Wyeth both lived on the Atlantic coast and presented sailors and fishermen suspended between voids of sky and shifting abstractions of the sea. Yet, for all of their interest in the action and shapes of water, it remained a setting for paintings of a broader world, never the subject itself.

Which brings us to Ben Miller’s paintings: waterscapes, river portraits, apparently abstract compositions of layered strokes of color that can resolve into distinct depictions of specific places. The action in Miller’s plein-air painting moves around and through him. He stands at the edge of (sometimes in) a river and paints what he sees - the shapes and colors, the flux of reflections, ripples, lines of light and shadows on the riverbed seen through the resolving lens of the river itself. His compositions have no horizons, no enclosed space, only dashes of movement and layered depths.

An avid, lifelong outdoorsman, Miller grew up in Darrington, Washington, lumber territory north-east of Seattle. There was a creek near his home and he learned trout fishing like city boys learn basketball. He showed skill in art and majored in it in college. Gaining an education degree, he taught art at the Darrington high school for twelve years

To hear him, it was not a particularly rewarding experience. A public school art teacher in rural Washington competes against a tide of indifference and distractions. A phone call from a brother living in Bozeman, Montana encouraged Miller to pursue painting, and fishing, there. Age 38, he packed up and moved in 2016.

He began tracing the rivers of the Mountain West: the Madison, Gallatin, and Yellowstone in Montana; Colorado’s Gunnison; the Lamar and Firehole in Yellowstone Park. He favors, he says, the “free-flowing” ones, the un-dammed Gallatin and Yellowstone, that run with deep currents and hints of foreboding. For Miller, these powers translate to “greater velocity” and “bigger hits” in his paintings, a sense of action and reaction that’s central to his art.

Now, a few words about how he does it.

Miller painted largely conventional, graphic oil color canvases of swimming trout. A way to accurately render waving bars of light on rocky riverbeds, he admits, soon became an obsession in itself; from there it was a short jump to expressing the flow of the river itself.

How to do that came to him, he says, one night on another long distance call with his brother, a flash of inspiration needing immediate trial. A half hour later, he was in his backyard using a fly rod to smack a canvas with a paint-daubed sock at the end of his line. He decamped to Montana shortly thereafter.

Working with two four-by-five-foot sheets of aluminum hinged together to form an A-frame easel, Miller, positioned about twenty feet off, uses a fly rod to whip, flick, and smack paint-swabbed pieces of fabric at the end of his line against a rectangle of plexiglass (canvas proved too pliant for the work), three-by-four or four-by-eight feet across, propped against his stand. Unusual, but somehow exactly right for the setting and what Miller aims to accomplish.

Before dismissing it as a gimmick, a critic should consider what the artist has to do for the work to work out; finding the locale, noting the colors of the riverbed and reflections on it bouncing from the sky, choosing his acrylic paint palette – kept in a folding aluminum case meant to hold dry flies – selecting his homemade “brushes” – strips of fabric of various sizes, shapes, and materials that hold paint to make specific marks, the “hits”, on the surface of the plexiglass.

Miller completes every painting in a single, hours-long session, the image built slowly, first by forming the shape of the water, the ripples of its surface, and tones the water draws from the sky, rising from there to model the deeper colors and larger shapes of the riverbed. The finished work is meant to be exhibited turned around, with the smooth, back surface of the plexiglass facing the viewer, light shining through its layers of color, in a proper register of the river’s natural design.

A recent outing on the Madison River, south of Ennis, Montana, found Miller choosing a brushy gravel bar at a brisk, knee-high wade some ten yards from the nearest bank to set up and work. He packs-in the easel and a three-by-four foot plexiglass sheet, and chooses the day’s colors from a big plastic chest filled with white tubes of paint he keeps in the back of his truck. Miller works mainly with two fly rods, a nine-foot five-weight Winston Boron II, and a heavier two-handed eight-weight Winston Spay rod, thirteen-and-a-half feet long, which makes more emphatic marks. He also has a five-and-a-half foot four-weight Winston for working narrow reaches, or, sometimes, indoors. He uses the nine-foot Winston exclusively this day.

Consider how perfect a fly rod is for the task, limber as a willow branch, refined over centuries to induce shapes on the water in line with the current so as not to rile the fish the angler is after. The fishing tackle itself is a filament of the wind meant to drop a dry fly precisely in a way that’s most interesting to a wary trout. Miller has appropriated these classic instruments to draw forms from the setting in a way that’s intimate to the setting itself. This is true action painting, the action of a river translated by methods indigenous to the river itself, to form an image at once abstract and recognizable to a place and time.

Miller spends five hours standing in the Madison this day. He does not rest, working a constant back and forth with the rod, the pigmented fabrics making a selection of marks long and short, dense and thin, from top to bottom. A cheerful, broad-chested man, he works with a small, constant smile, the sure sign of someone in love with what they’re doing. His aim is excellent. Fishing guide boats occasionally pass with nary a word, though one angler suggests Miller might use more yellow.

A warm and sunny late morning becomes an overcast afternoon. There’s a little rain, some hail (it is Montana after all), then a lot more rain. Through it all, Miller stays on the water. A bright painting turns umber and matte grey with white highlights and irregular runny spots where raindrops have pelted the paint, a signature from the sky unplanned but apt. When he’s done, the finished painting, propped against its easel resting on the gravel bar, looks like it belongs exactly where it is, a part of the river Miller carries back to his truck and brings home.

– Joe Gioia


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