Veneer of humor covers furniture of Tom Miller

ART REVIEW

May 12, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

If there's anybody out there who doesn't know about Tom Miller's wonderful painted furniture, run right to Steven Scott Gallery and make its acquaintance. That is, if you can get in, because all those who do know about Miller's work will probably be there already.

Painted furniture had a great tradition in Baltimore in the 19th century, and the best of it was as high style as Baltimore ever got. Miller has turned the tables on this tradition by taking articles of already-made furniture and decorating them with partly deco-inspired but thoroughly original designs in the brightest of colors. African-American himself, Miller satirizes the high-style tradition but also mocks black stereotypes by throwing them back in our faces.

Were blacks associated with watermelon? Well, Miller puts watermelon everywhere on his works, from lamp finials to chair ++ rockers. And if blackface musicians promulgated the stereotype the black with the ear-to-ear grin, Miller puts great big grins all over the black umbrella with tassels shading his "And the Livin' Is Easy" rocking chair (the one with the watermelon rockers).

But Miller's satire is never hard to take, because his work is basically humorous and happy.

His light touch even extends to dealing with subjects that have to do with death. In his "Radames and Aida" table, which has a camel's head extending from the top, he put two hearts in a pyramid on the bottom shelf to symbolize the entombment alive of the doomed lovers in the opera "Aida."

Miller's biggest work in this new show is a three-part screen called "Summer in Baltimore."

hTC It's not as funny as some of his other works, probably partly because the form of a screen doesn't offer quite the opportunities for humor that the shape of a table or a chair does, and partly because Miller was deliberately being more serious in this work, which depicts aspects of life in our city. So we have a boat on the water, a crab and a fish (rock, no doubt), the Washington Monument, the proverbial white steps, and a-rabs with their wagon and horse (I'll give you one guess what they're selling to their white customer -- it has 10 letters and begins with "w").

More fun, if not quite as important, is "Walk Like an Egyptian."

It's a toolbox on legs, with a -- what else -- watermelon handle on the top and tiny African masks on the front and sides of the box. But what makes it are the legs. They're banisters from a stairway painted in stripes of yellow, black, green, white, red and aqua, and they end in black and white shoes and white socks.

One of the most imaginative pieces here is the "Endangered Species" one-drawer table, with an elephant lamp on top, gazelles on the sides and a drawer that opens to reveal an alligator lurking inside. But why am I singling this out as particularly imaginative, when everything Miller does is imaginative?

If I could take one thing home, it might be the corner cupboard called "Nefertiti's Hutch," with its pink curtain flowing across the top and down the sides of the cabinet, and its butterflies chasing one another around the glass doors.

But I can't take it home, because like virtually everything else here it was sold before the show ever opened, and there's a waiting list for Miller's work. It's not hard to see why.

ART REVIEW

What: Tom Miller's painted furniture

Where: Steven Scott Gallery, 515 N. Charles St.

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through June

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