Tom Miller seriously inventive, delightfully quirky

September 11, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

This time around, let's relax and enjoy Tom Miller's painted furniture, currently on view at Steven Scott Gallery.

Since about a decade ago, when the work of this Baltimore artist began to find an audience first locally and then on a national scale, it's been scrutinized, analyzed, solemnized quite enough.

And all because it's so much fun. The old furniture that Miller finds and paints in his trademark Technicolor style has an immediate appeal that people tend to resist. Afraid somebody will think they're calling it superficial, they emphasize instead its serious side.

And there's lots of that in Miller's art. It carries on the great, centuries-old tradition of Baltimore painted furniture. Created by an African-American, it often focuses on racial stereotypes in order to defuse them. Stylistically it has numerous roots, notably African art and art deco. Because it's made of old furniture recycled instead of discarded, it's environmentally virtuous. And works such as "Rockin' at Heaven's Gate," which grew out of the artist's continuing battle with AIDS, touch on the universal theme of coming to terms with mortality.

In short, Miller's a highly serious artist. But he's also a happy, positive and celebratory one, with a fertile imagination, a terrific sense of design and color, and a tremendous capacity to give pleasure. Those qualities are all in evidence in this exhibit of 26 works, most created since the joint Baltimore Museum of Art-Maryland Art Place retrospective of 1995.

Miller's work never looks repetitious, even though his strong style is a constant throughout and certain motifs (especially animals) recur. Every piece looks fresh, a newly imagined and ingenious marriage of design and form.

"Miller's Retreat" combines trees, puffy white clouds, blue sky, fish in the water and bare feet, all painted on a rocking chair. It pretty much sums up the pleasures of a vacation getaway spot.

A two-leaf kitchen table becomes "Oasis," with stylized black elephants that might be right out of Disney's "Fantasia" marching around the central blue water hole. In the middle of this water sits a blue bowl decorated with fishes. What better metaphor -- the kitchen table is the house's oasis, where the family comes together to take sustenance in food, drink and each other.

Another piece employs two tables that nest. On the top of one, a bird sits on a big hand. On the other, two birds perch on some foliage. The title? "A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush" of course. And where better to picture birds than on a nest of tables?

Miller breaks new ground here by venturing cautiously into the kinetic. Just above the back of a chair called "You Bug Me Baby," a battery-run red and black bug circles lazily. Miller has painted on the chair's arm a hand holding a fly swatter.

Miller has long since become so popular that there's a long waiting list for his work. So all the furniture here has been sold. But fortunately, in recent years, he has also created colorful prints in multiples. The show includes five, all with local themes including "Maryland Crab Feast," "Summer in Baltimore" and "Baltimore's Musical Legacy."

The last comes from Miller's design for a mural in the city's proposed Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center and includes representations of dancer Avon Long, composer and bandleader Cab Calloway and singer Billie Holiday, plus the hands of Eubie Blake.

'Painted Furniture and Screenprints'

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

When: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays till Nov. 1

Call: 410-752-6218

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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