Aaron Miller: In Support of Luxury

New downtown exhibition:
Aaron Miller: In Support of Luxury
October 4- November 8, 2013
S.U. Downtown Art Galleries: 120 N. Division Street, Salisbury
Opening Reception: Friday, October 4, 6.00 PM


“My artistic research is best described as a social inquiry into class-consciousness.  My work links two disparate worlds; the mining industries of Wyoming and the sophistication of the 19th century upper classes. In these images, I insert the industrial product of coal directly into parlors and luxury goods, products that have been coal’s ultimate destination since the industrial revolution. This work blurs the lines between the gritty miner/laborer and the refined consumer. The resultant work is a world somewhere between reality and the flight of my imagination.

Nouveau riche American families in the late 18th century used material purchases to define their wealth and status as America’s Gilded Age of Industrialization began. This installation, entitled In Support of Luxury, imagines the fancy parlor of an early mining tycoon, coated with tar and piled deep in filthy coal.  The piece consists of two freestanding walls creating a corner with a parquet wood floor. The room contains lavish decorations and furnishings that replicate a Queen Anne-style sitting room. The furnishings are selectively smeared with heavy layers of tar. Stacked in the corner is a mound of coal, pouring out onto the fine parquet floor. The mound is deep, as if to suggest that the coal is filling the room. The scene represents class, culture and status at the very beginning of the American Industrial Revolution, yet the fine furnishings are shrouded by industrial raw materials that are rarely observable in contemporary culture.”
Aaron Miller, Artist Statement

To find out more information about Miller’s installation and exhibition, Galleries Manager Marisa Sage sat down for an interview with Aaron Miller.


MS: Tell us about the lineage of this project, how it relates to your earlier work and your hometown.

AM: It all sort of starts with my family history. My father is a coal miner, my oldest brother is a miner, I grew up in a town that consisted of many types of mining, there’s a refinery in the downtown right next to our house, coal mines all around, oil fields all around, so industry was a huge thing. But it’s something you don’t see unless you drive to that part of the world, it’s something that you have to seek out to find. It’s really fascinating, because when you go to a city all this stuff is running on electricity and gas and oil, but you just don’t see how that’s happening, there’s an infrastructure that everyone’s sort of ignorant to. So it became a kind of obsession of mine to look at coal and the industry of coal mining. On the flipside of that, I’m also interested in the wealth accumulated by the mining industry, and that’s where the 19th century iconography comes in. During the industrial revolution of the 19th century people were moving over into the United States, generating new wealth, much of it held by the mining industries. During this time, there was a chip on the shoulder of the upper class because of the schism with Britain. So they would buy the fanciest possible things and everything would be covered in shiny opulence. So icons like the wallpaper, the sitting chair, the nice flooring, the family portrait, all that stuff is showing how important you are. They are trying to appear better than their history. So that is the flipside of my family’s industrial stuff, it has a lot to do with researching into the wealth of the industrial revolution but also the people. The little copper portraits have a coal miner’s face on the body of an industrialist from that time period, such as people inventing the cotton gin, and other things that have changed the progression of the United States and the world. These industrialists are very important people, but there are other people that are also important to that process that were never acknowledged. That is a thread that goes through all of the work. The installation was made around the same time as the little copper pieces, and the newest graphite drawings are very much the same thing, but I used women’s bodies and men’s heads. It has nothing to do with sex, but mainly men are coal miners, and the fanciest portraits are of women. My works bring the two things closer together.

MS: You see these same divisions trickle down into the current times, but we are good at masking it, so good that we almost forget that we stole almost 50% of our energy.

AM: Yeah, 48% of the United States and 2/3 of the world burns coal for electricity. We’re all using laptops and we have 5 or 6 things plugged in constantly just for comfort and luxury. We are in support of our own luxury but we also support the wealth of these industries in the process. There’s a lot of ignorance when it comes to our power sources. Everyone thinks it is really easy to say ‘well let’s use wind or solar power or whatever bio fuels to change what we’re doing’ but people have to change too. We have to stop running our lights on the other side of our house for example, because that contributes to our need for this natural resource. If we push the natural resource production down, which is happening right now in the heavily regulated coal mining industry, it will come up somewhere else. It’s not going to be solar and wind, however, until there’s a viable production of it and people are in those jobs. There’s a huge population of miners in this country. Wyoming’s economy is 90% mining of some sort. Wyoming is a beautiful state, we have the Tetons and Yellowstone, but if you drive two hours in any direction you see trucks pulling 100,000 pounds of coal 24 hours a day. It’s just insane the amount of stuff coming out of the ground, and it’s because of us. My father was telling me that there are these 300-feet tall coal silos outside of his company, where a conveyor belt brings coal up into the silo and then this train goes underneath and fills up. This happens 8 times a day, every day, year round. It never stops. It is a really controversial subject, and I certainly don’t agree with the environmental aspects of the way we’ve set up our systems, but I don’t blame the mining industry or the people who have those jobs. I feel both sides are a little misguided in how to deal with the solution for global warming. With that being said, the work is not about environmentalism, it’s about the class structure system.


MS: You said there’s only so much one person can do. What is your role as an artist?

AM: I think I have an interesting role in this conversation especially, because I have so much experience on both sides of what’s happening. So for me it’s a lot about educating and making people aware of their own short comings. Because like I said it’s important for us to think about these things and there’s still a lot of ignorance, and it’s nice to spread the wealth around a little bit more.  Most of these mining towns are seriously economically depressed, especially on the east coast, because when the mine empties out the town shuts down. Wyoming is different because there are hundreds of years of coal in the ground. Ultimately, my role is an educator.

MS: Can you tell me a little bit more about color? I see there’s a lot of pure whites and coal black. Can you talk about the lack of color, pure color vs. no color?

AM: I’m a printmaker by trade; the images I’m most fascinated with are clean. When I do these resin coated coal things, I want that to be an uncontrollable thing on a controllable surface. I’m not sure if it’s a hyper attention to detail or an OCD thing, but I like black and white. Printmaking is primarily a black and white medium, or was historically. I do mezzotints, which involves a very labor-intensive process that has room for color. I kind of veer into yellowish ochres and tar, but I’m most attracted to crisp and extremely contained colors The contrast of that greasy and oily coal color on a completely pure white surface is very attractive to me. I often want to put a blast of bright color in my work, but when I bring it up to the surface, I change my mind. At this point I’ve been into it for so long that this sort of dark world makes sense.


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MS: Did you make prints from the copper mezzotint plates before creating the works in this show?

AM: They are retired plates. I run editions and I have a lot of the prints in the studio. Almost always, I find the plates as I’m doing the process more interesting than the print. I think when there’s that cover of resin on top of the copper and the lights hits it appropriately, it shines. It is kind of like photographic processes of the 19th century where lots of chemicals were creating unnatural colors.

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MS: Where are you getting these images from?

AM: Well some of them, like one of the graphite black images of a coal miner, is a man that I know. The other one with a mustache is a 1920’s oil lamp coal miner from the east coast. The thing about the portraits, the faces anyway, in Wyoming they don’t use the helmets like that. It’s not underground mining and they don’t have head lamps, they drive trucks and they’re on the surface. So using these sort of random faces serves as an icon, it’s a thing that represents the whole of coal mining. Everyone asks if my father has black lung after working in the coal mines for 35 years but he’s perfectly healthy.


MS: Are you interested in just the aesthetics of the 19th century French painters like Ingres or in the social history of these paintings as well?

AM: I’m interested in both. The characters he painted were aristocrats of some sort, princes and queens and princess. So they had a stake in much more than you would recognize immediately without having done some research. They owned the mining industries and they owned all sorts of stuff, and these families still do. It ties into the wealthy versus the working class but he’s just an amazing painter as well. I really like his work and David’s, and their sort of overly lavish yet tightly rendered imagery. So in that sense it’s as much about visual imagery as the context of the person in the portrait. I mean I like to think that I could find enough portraits that were good of industrialist’s wives and daughters but that’s not always the case. And when it comes down to it, it’s more about a sort of visual imagery that is a shining example of fancy.

MS: Can you explain the difference for you between working in two dimensions and three dimensions?  Why work with the coal itself?

AM: Well, at heart I’m a drawing based artist. When I start a painting, it ends up becoming a drawing, so the two dimensions are where my home is really. I want to use the natural product that I’m talking about in my pieces so the surfaces that have this sort of flocked coal are important for bringing the subject together. Graphite is actually the purest form of coal, which is really astonishing. Beyond drawing, I like the installation because it creates this sort of world. Ideally I would put this into a museum’s period room, where it would make sense to the time period, but it also would be really strange. Using the coal physically, I always thought that outside of Wyoming it was impossible to find, it’s not like it’s everywhere. So now that I have the ability to get it immediately I’m sure I will be sculpting out of it. I like using the thing that I’m talking about. Charcoal is one thing, but if I can use coal I will definitely use it. It’s interesting too because everyone thinks it’s charcoal because they’ve never seen coal in person before. They think it’s something you would get in your Christmas stocking, or that we used to burn way back when, but today we are still burning this stuff to make electrical heat on a large, industrial scale.


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