There's a black cloud hanging over Dan Miller's artwork, literally. As we walk into the Waterloo Arts Gallery, cumulus masses float ominously, spray-painted between Miller's exquisitely raw mixed media pieces.
Miller's current exhibition, Some Disassembly Required, is a collection of 15 wall works that expose the artist's battle with depression, his lifelong relationship with bipolar II disorder and traumatic events that occurred over the past four years, including a divorce and the loss of his grandfather. On the day we met at the gallery, Miller revealed to us that it was the anniversary of a gruesome motorcycle accident illustrated in one of the displayed works.
"PTSD," pictured, is one of Miller's mixed-media vignettes that pulls us intimately into his lived experience. It illustrates the location on I-90 westbound where he nearly died. "Even after the accident, I drive past there every day," the artist tells us. Using splatters and frenetic fine lines, the scene is a frightening reminder of what could have been. Salmon pink, electric blue and acid greens dominate his palette as another black cloud looms nearby. 'This is where my heart always skips,' Miller has written on the left. 'This is where I should have died,' he has etched on the median. A blue car passes nonchalantly, unaware of the horrific scene that occurred one year ago.
Each of the works on display is layered in every sense of the word. Using wood panels for the main support, Miller employs spray paint for background and then acrylic paint on top of the panel. The top layer is wet media acetate, which we mistook for a high gloss varnish. The gloss really adds depth to each piece.
"The clouds are on the back and the drawing is on the front, and the color is watercolor paper on the back of the acetate," states Miller. "I wanted to get a certain dimensionality by utilizing watercolor technique with acrylic. I tried to balance the bright colors with the morbid nature, because I could've gone full morbid, but most of my work has dealt more playfully with darker subject matters."
Miller taps into subjects nobody wants to talk about by revealing what he went through each day while preparing for this exhibition about depression. "I'll Get to It Tomorrow" is based on a photograph of the artist's actual kitchen. The sink and surrounding countertop are overflowing with dishes. Anyone who has battled depression must certainly have had this experience.
"It gets so overwhelming, and you should be doing [the dishes]. And that feeds into the cycle, and the avoidance gets worse," says Miller, regarding the mental paralysis that leads to feeling overwhelmed. "Logically it's stupid. I should be able to function, to just be happy. One of the things about depression is that it makes you feel isolated, and talking about it can be validating. There are a lot of things we feel overwhelmed aboutdoing. There's a lack of motivation. You just don't want to do anything. It's easy to be depressed because you don't want to do anything."
"Obsessive Avoidance" addresses that same lack of motivation. 'I haven't left the couch in days' is scrawled on the wall, surrounded by empty beer cans and remnants of half-eaten food in containers strewn across the coffee table around his laptop. There's something about Miller's line work that brings to mind the great Ralph Steadman, the artist famous for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone. With his heavy blotches of ink and scratched letters, we can almost hear the sound of Miller's pen as he records his desperation.
We land in front of the artwork titled "Something about a Fake Smile" as Miller describes the scene. "This is based on a photo after the accident. I was healing and went to a going-away party for one of my coworkers. I was delirious with pain, but it was important to be there. It was hard because even though I was bandaged, other people were like, 'You should smile,' and I was like, this is impossible. And I thought, I just can't win." The artist is depicted with a television for a head. By all accounts, the television should be working. Instead, it is heavy on the shoulders and the screen is blank.
The grouping of works highlights Miller's need for balance. "I've always played with size," he says, "the fight between large format and small subject matter, so letting these [three mixed media works] be grouped on their own on the wall, with the black clouds, you can see they are connected. But on their own they are isolated."
"The Thought You Can't Admit (pt. I-III)" show the artist, again as television head, in the midst of a suicidal fantasy.
There is a deep intricacy in Some Disassembly Required. Miller successfully brings us into his isolation to the point where we must talk about it. In fact, Maria Neil Art Project @Waterloo Arts will be holding an artist talk at the gallery on Sept. 11, starting at 6 p.m.
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