Ben Miller celebrates, and intimately paints, rivers - the lifeblood of our land. His paintings present the natural world as a place of pilgrimage, discovery, inspiration, beauty and worship. Miller’s paintings are visually beautiful, contemporary, and unusual. They could hang on the walls of any top gallery in New York City. They look and feel like a 21st century extension of Jackson Pollock’s drips, Morris Louis’s pours, and Joan Mitchell’s use of abstract expressionist brushwork to paint landscape.
Without witnessing Ben Miller paint a painting, it is almost impossible to understand how they are made. Miller starts by setting up a homemade easel on the banks of a river, upon which he places a sheet of transparent plexiglass. Using traditional fly fishing rods, Miller substitutes handmade “fly-brushes” for conventional hooked flies, saturates them in acrylic paint, and casts from over twenty feet on to the plexiglass. Over the course of about five hours, Miller casts over one thousand times, the mark of each cast eventually making up a finished painting of a chosen river.
Miller often starts with wispy threads to create flickers of reflection, and later larger pompoms to create the feeling of the rocks on the river bottom. (Miller’s notebooks contain detailed ink drawings of the various fly-brushes with names such as “Rising Loop” or “Tooble”, along with text descriptions of their properties.) For larger fly-brushes, Miller uses a two-handed spey rod, which is capable of delivering marks at over 80 miles per hour. As if the process wasn’t amazing enough, one comes to realize that Miller, in a sense, paints backwards – the actual finished painting is the reverse of the paint covered transparent polycarbonate. Turned around, the first strikes of the day are “on top” of the painting and the last form the backdrop.
Further, removed from the easel, transparent and translucent areas allow light to emerge from behind the painting, akin to a stained glass painting (when installed in home or gallery, the paintings are installed two inches off the wall to allow light to come through.) Miller’s choice to present the slick back of the transparent polycarbonate as the front allows the viewer to see the river through an apparent sheen of water, and serves to make the painting even more representational. But the paintings are also defiantly abstract and formal, and resonate with a post-modern experience of seeing through screens - computer screens, smart phone screens, television screens, and more.
Miller brings together two disparate cultures – fly fishing culture and high art culture – each with much to learn from the other. They breathe new life into an art world struggling to balance art and nature on our rapidly changing and endangered planet.