Bucky Miller and the Undefinable

by Bill Arning
Director, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
UMLAUF Prize 2017 Juror

Bucky Miller's artwork is best understood more as a philosophically loaded quandary than as a straight aesthetic experience. It became clear in the simple descriptive language one needs for a press release that as soon as one uttered a declarative sentence about Miller, one was already lying. To say, "Bucky Miller is a photographer"—which he probably is—brings up all the ways in which he is not, and his exhibitions are not photography shows, although the most memorable elements are photographic. Miller clearly cherishes the many category crises that his practice creates and urges us to try (and fail) to disentangle the elements.

A photograph is not identical with the thing it depicts. Yet, it always is identified with the subject in terms of our experience. The mental gymnastics to say, "This is a photograph of my dog," versus holding up the same snapshot and saying, "This is my dog," is nearly impossible. Despite dealing with the disappearing object hood of photographic prints in our digital age, when an actual print is made, decisions must be made as to how it should be displayed. The strength of our assumptions (framed, mounted, preserved in albums) is based on where we associate looking at pictures in our personal histories. And finally, there is the larger issue of how exhibition space is already a sculptural question. Every object put into a space needs to be dealt with sculpturally. (The way Bucky dealt with this in his University of Texas thesis exhibition was so deft that it won him this Award.)

Miller's photographs, when placed in the UMLAUF gallery and merging out into the Sculpture Garden, further confuse definitions. They depict unnatural nature: a puppet of a bird that looks more alive than an out-of-focus flashed-out goose. Images of a chimpanzee on a towel and a frog from a nature show conjure parallel responses with viewers. The subjects' big eyes and memorable facial expressions capture our human sympathetic imaginations of nature and its metaphors, even though they are clearly at a far remove from anything remotely wild. The disequilibrium between the two words in "sculpture/park" function similarly, in that the more we see a park as already sculptural (meaning designed for psychological effect), the further it is from pure nature. The historical design battles between bucolic versus highly manicured and geometric parks remain as background buzz when framed by Miller's nature/not nature works. Similarly, Miller also includes photographs of found leftovers of architecture, such as a brick embedded in concrete. While these transformations appear to have been constructed for some long forgotten unaesthetic purpose, they will remind savvy gallery-goers of well-known artwork by sculptors like Isa Genzken and Franz West. They become sculptures by existing only in Miller's photographs, so the photographs are now sculpture, too.

It is a brave artist indeed who designs his work to slip between definitions and descriptions, and the game he invites us to play—trying (and failing) to define what our eyes see in language—will, for many visitors, bleed into the rest of their day. The snapchat image your 13-year-old niece sent of her favorite stuffed animal will send you into a philosophical hole, and that is a very sophisticated and pleasurable aftereffect of Bucky Miller's art effect.