Tom Miller's furniture, now showing at Steven Scott, can be appreciated on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that it makes us happy.
To be serious first -- let's eat our vegetables before we have dessert, so to speak -- there's the ecological level. Like other art furniture makers, Miller recycles old objects. Tables and chairs and cabinets and bookcases that you or I would overlook as totally unsuitable, Miller sees as color and pattern and statement and fun, and rescues them from oblivion to do double duty as utilitarian objects and works of art.
There's also the African-American statement level. How else can we read the watermelon slices that appear as a recurring motif except as throwing the stereotype of lazy, watermelon-eating blacks back in our faces? Miller is a highly successful artist, shown in museums and eagerly sought by collectors. With his watermelon slices, he's wryly making white America eat the image it foisted on blacks.
Watermelon isn't the only such reference here, however. There's a table titled "Emperor Jones," another called "High Yellow," and in the bookcase called "Younger Than Springtime" are black hands painted on the bottom level (a possible reference to the level of society to which whites relegated blacks?).
Then there's the roots level, artistically and perhaps with reference to genealogical roots as well. In an essay accompanying Miller's show, Metropolitan Museum curator Lowery Sims notes the influences of Dahomey textiles, 18th century French furniture makers and 19th century African Americans "who successfully created a synthesis of African decoration and European cabinetry."
But sooner or later with Miller you've got to just relax and enjoy him. You've got to enjoy the "Ascension" cabinet with its flappy-tailed birds, one in a clock on top. You've got to enjoy "Land of the Pharaohs," a Morris chair with arms painted to resemble tiger's legs, ending in paws with blue toenails. You've got to enjoy "Baboon," a former silver chest (on stand) in the form of a baboon's face with front teeth that pull out to reveal a drawer lined with fake tiger fur.
In the last few years Miller's work has been shown from New York to California. Fortunately, he still lives, works and exhibits in Baltimore.
"Tom Miller" continues through Feb. 29 at Steven Scott Gallery, 515 N. Charles St. Call (410) 752-6218.