Ruth Miller, Cabbage, Melon, Window Still Life, 2013/14, Oil on canvas, 26 x 31 inches
The still life paintings of Ruth Miller are at first glance deceptively modest. On closer viewing however, they have a compelling power comparable to a gravitational pull.
Arriving in New York in the mid-fifties, Ruth Miller quickly became involved in the revolutionary artistic intensity of that period. Even at an early stage, she was fascinated by the dynamics of pictorial space. Although she worked briefly in abstraction, within a few years she turned back to the still life as a vehicle for her conquest of space.
Many younger artists returned to observation around that time, but her exploration did not lead toward the abstract realism of painters like William Bailey or Janet Fish, where objects are rendered in great three-dimensional specificity, but to the creation of an alternate universe of “realist” abstraction. Because this universe is consistent within itself, the viewer does not feel a need to compare it with the perceptual world, but accepts it on its own terms.
The intensely observed drawing which comprises the foundation of Miller’s still lifes, recedes on a consistent perspectival plane like a landscape. The forms of cabbages and pumpkins, rounded like tree tops, are interspersed with towers of pitchers and vases. Like a spider web, this drawing is delicate but very, very strong. Even while in this three dimensional world, areas of raw canvas and charcoal and chalk lines, over and under realistically painted objects, draw us back to the surface. Often objects in the distance are rendered specifically, while objects in front are more subtly suggested.
Paul Georges used to say, “You destroy the surface with drawing, and you restore the surface with color.” In Cabbage, Melon, Window Still Life, for instance, an intensely saturated fabric, which drapes over a similarly saturated clear vase, hurries forward, while the twin dark planets of melon and cabbage in front firmly hold it back. The background light advances, the foreground table recedes. This canvas, has a luminous glow, as do many of Miller’s, as if the light source were the painting itself. The composition’s rigorous austerity, the lyrical color, the self-enclosed light, construct a completely convincing world, the “harmony parallel to nature” of which Cezanne spoke.
But in Miller’s work, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The deliberate nostalgia of the still life objects – none manufactured later than the 1930’s – the autumnal harvest vegetables with their rich, dark colors or highly saturated ones, the sensuous brush work, the mysterious and almost erotic light, have a tender and profound poignancy and power, reminding us of the beauty of life: immediate, fleeting, and unrestorable.
Margaret Grimes has a MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and started the MFA at Western Connecticut University, which she headed for many years. She is a member of the National Academy and lives and works in rural Connecticut. www.margaretgrimes.com