Walking up to the Austin apartment complex where artist Bucky Miller lives, the stirrings of his aesthetic are in the surroundings that have served as his home in Austin for the last four years.
The small, shady apartment complex is the kind that looks like a semi-decrepit motel you might see in a David Lynch movie. Its one-story ring of units has rusting numbers on the doors and a small creek running through its parking lot that flows toward the dark corner where Miller lives. Not new enough to feel fresh but not old enough to feel vintage, the complex has hosted a changing cast of Austin residents over the last four years with two constants: Miller and the toad.
So what about this toad? Miller explains, kind of, in the statement for his recent exhibition at Houston’s Jonathan Hopson Gallery:
“I love the Toad, but I do not know the Toad. I cannot, but this has almost nothing to do with the fact that I am human and the Toad is toad. It has a little to do with gaps in communication, but mostly it has to do with the fact that the Toad is a shapeshifter; it is sometimes brown, sometimes gray, sometimes it is the size of my fist and sometimes it is the size of a key fob. Sometimes it is even two toads, and on one wondrous occasion it was three. How could I ever expect to familiarize myself with such magic?”
Miller’s playful, cryptic writing speaks to his practice in wry poetics. The Toad is both more and less than a real, hopping, crawling, breathing amphibian. There has of course been a real toad, one that emerges from the creek nearby Miller’s apartment complex and warms itself on the twilight cement.
But also, Miller admits, it is probably (definitely) not the same toad every time he sees it. No matter the individual identity of the toad, Miller identifies its image as a kind of soothing recurrent presence, a signal from the natural world that allows him to keep track of the cycles of time as they pass through his life here in Austin.
“Perhaps,” I suggest, “the Toad is something like a physical embodiment of a type of relationship with the world, a relationship that you’re not in control of. The Toad comes and goes in mysterious ways, and you can enjoy that aesthetic experience without fully understanding it.”
“Yes!” he exclaims with a smile.
Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Miller grew up with a talent for skateboarding and a passion for writing. He found his way into art through skate photography, but quickly came to the conclusion that skaters were not what he wanted to focus on.
“I realized that I could do something with photographs that I wanted to with language, but kind of work backwards by starting with the image,” he says.
This all makes sense as Miller’s preferred method of distribution is through photo books. Miller thinks of his photography not so much in series, but in a collective and reiterative way. He photographs constantly. But it’s the process of selection and bookmaking that becomes a means of processing and collating the through-lines of his vision. Assembling photographs into books, piecing the images into an order like words in a sentence, allows Miller to refine and reframe the narrative of his body of work.
The book he produced in conjunction with his exhibition at Jonathan Hopson Gallery is a brilliant saturated green, like the color of a cartoon toad. The inspiration for this color came from a slim novella Miller picked up in a used bookstore. The green glossy dust jacket of “Mrs. Caliban” glistens like the skin of its romantic lead, a tall frog-man named Larry, escaped from an abusive oceanographic lab who brings unexpected eroticism and joy to a lonely housewife.
Miller’s photo book is matte, but mimics the purity of solid color on “Mrs. Caliban’s” back cover, interrupted only by a small, blurry image of a toad, flooded with light so as to be barely legible. Miller’s work often uses this visual language of low-skill photography — harsh flash, off-center composition, lack of focus — in the service of making the banal strange. His keen eye for the uncanny finds the smallest moments and invests them with an attention that makes one reconsider the shadows of their reality.
While the book is central to his practice, Miller’s recent exhibitions have demonstrated his inventive approach to installation and his ability to transform the photograph in three dimensions.
In 2017, Miller received the Umlauf Prize, an award reserved for University of Texas graduate sculpture students. Director of the Contemporary Art Museum Houston Bill Arning, who served as juror for the award, wrote in his catalogue essay: “To say, ‘Bucky Miller is a photographer’— which he probably is—brings up all the ways in which he is not, and his exhibitions are not photography shows, although the most memorable elements are photographic.”
In Miller’s Hopson Gallery exhibition, and in his “Art on the Lawn” installation for the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, the artist plays with scale, position, and print media to transform his two-dimensional images into objects that emerge from unexpected nooks and structures.
At Hopson, the large, brilliant blue sky in his photograph of a dead tree feels a bit like a swimming pool on the floor of the space and the scenes emerging from window panes disorient, bringing an illusory landscape outside the gallery in. At CAMH, the signposted photographs of a goose, a tree, a raccoon play off the architecture and landscaping of the museum to perform a mysterious doubling.
One of my favorite images in the book and the exhibition at Hopson Gallery — though I’m obviously biased — is a portrait of my dog, Moonpie. Though I spend an inordinate number of hours looking at both Moonpie and the space in which the photo was shot (my front yard), the scene feels eerily foreign, like it was taken out of time and space. Moonpie’s body is curled away from the camera so that he appears almost abstracted, a bright white ball of fluff. A dark shadow spreads across the top third of the image contrasting ominously with the dappling of light on the concrete pavers.
Another of Miller’s dog images shows only the hindquarters of a tall brindled canine poking out from behind the orange and white pole of a parking structure. Both images display Miller’s ability to find something other in the most familiar of non-human creatures, something that makes us realize the different plane of reality in which they perceive the world.
What is this something other? It is hard to pin down, but I think it just might be a theme in Miller’s work, a theme that pervades his images of dogs, frogs, birds, chairs, corners, nests, and other intriguing elements of the world around us.
How might objects and images be made to speak to us, across the insular boundaries of human language? In her oddly delightful book “The Companion Species Manifesto,” theorist Donna Haraway described the connection between humans and dogs as relying on “significant otherness,” a phrase that plays with the strange tension between fundamental difference and loving communication in our mutually informing trans-species relationship with dogs.
It’s the same tension of connection, conversation, and uncanny significance that buzzes like fluorescent light in the dim evening of Miller’s photographic world.
Bucky Miller’s installation for CAMH’s Art on the Lawn series is on view until March 31, 2019. buckymiller.com