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Kristen Miller
at PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, Oregon
Review by Richard Speer


Kristen Miller, 'From Above,: 2009, organdy, galssine, found papers, beads, watercolor, nylon thread, 19 1/2 x 24'.

“Here and Gone” is Kristen Miller’s elegant exploration of time, memory and the fleeting nature of human life. Through her materials — gauzy fabrics and diaphanous papers — and her technique of threading and beading, she reminds us that memories are sewn into the fabric of time; we piece together yesteryears and weave them into personal narratives, endeavoring to concretize and immortalize a cherished moment even as it dissolves in our hands. Subtle but never timid, Miller’s wall pieces and installation were inspired by Annie Dillard’s 1998 essay in Harpers, “The Wreck of Time: Taking our Century’s Measure.” The writer’s invocation of the billions who have lived and died in past ages and the further billions yet born, struck an existentialist chord with Miller. In the current body of work the artist, who earned degrees in fiber and textile design from Cranbrook Academy of Art and the University of Kansas, exploits the fragility of organdy, tissue, and glassine paper to convey the ephemerality of lives bookended by dual eternities.

In the wall pieces she often counterposes geometric forms, as in “From Above,” its two circles linked by nautilus-like swirls. These circles may be metaphoric stand-ins for the sun and moon, orbs by which we order our calendars and mark the passage of time.  Two plum-colored squares contemplate one another in “Untitled,” their rich hues standing out in a show otherwise given over to whites and ecrus. In “Ether,” waves of beads transect the picture plane like musical staves, while “Five Seconds” measures via form the duration of the average human breath.

The works’ meticulous threadwork nods to the temporality of craft traditions, in which time and difficulty of execution count for as much as, if not more than, conceptual concerns. There are feminist undertones as well. As writers such as Camille Paglia have asserted, women are often viewed as more organically connected to the passage of time than are men. The menstrual cycle charts the month in 29 days, while the so-called biological clock charts a woman’s reproductive trajectory. Further, the fabric, thread, and beads that comprise Miller’s media have in recent years been reappropriated by feminist artists to acknowledge and critique these materials’ associations with traditional notions of feminine domesticity. Wisely, the artist leaves meta-issues of craft and gender largely to the viewer’s reflection, preferring a suggestive approach to a heavy-handed one. “Here and Gone” is more concerned with poetics than polemics.

The ambitious installation from which the show takes its title was supported by a grant from Oregon’s nonprofit Regional Arts & Culture Council. For this piece, Miller created and distributed postcard questionnaires, asking respondents to expound upon important dates in their lives. Wedding days, children’s birthdays, the date of a parent’s death, were among the most common answers. For each date, she knotted a grouping of beads on a string hanging from a ceiling support, the positioning of the beads corresponding to an arbitrary chronological schema. In the finished piece, the strings dangle like long raindrops, each signifying a deeply personal narrative. Together, they cascade like a downpour of celebrations and sorrows. The installation, like the wall pieces, is fastidiously executed and emanates a quiet poignancy.


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