The Rymer Gallery | June 1–30
WORDS Cat Acree
Tinged with a rosy haze and fading to a blur at the edges of your vision, Shane Miller’s oil-and-water paintings may seem familiar. Do you remember that summer when you were so young? Do you remember the light on the water, the smell of wet leaves? Miller’s imagined impressionistic landscapes do. With soft lines and distant horizons, this is the golden hour of memory. Each painting is an intentional avenue to nostalgia, or as Miller has titled his new show at The Rymer Gallery, Desiderium.
“Think about a dream,” Miller says. “You can always recall a very specific part of a dream, that focal point. But everything else around it is very hazy and fades away. I have that in mind when I’m creating these paintings. Everything else fades off.”
Desiderium is nostalgia that runs deep under the skin. From the Latin for “to desire,” it suggests a profound longing, perhaps even a sense of grief for what has been lost. So often people like their nostalgia to be honeysuckle sweet, but with titles like The Walls of Our Mind, Perseverance, Faulty Memories in Our Mind, and The Journey Home, Miller’s work seeks to balance the light with the dark. Bad memories haven’t been repressed—at least not completely. In these blurry scenes, dark clouds break to let light in, and wet earth relishes the passing storm. A painting isn’t titled Peace but rather Ensuing Peace—peace that comes after something else.
Miller, a former physical therapist assistant who moved to Nashville a little over three years ago, is comfortable with nostalgia in a way that few can be. He has only favorable things to say about his childhood, either because it was only good or because that’s the only way he wants to remember it. Although he paints from his imagination, many of Miller’s works recall his childhood home of Western Maryland and the foothills of the Appalachians. Others have a stormy, watery quality from the East Coast. Others could be Midwestern vistas. None exhibit the destructive power of nature, but rather its ability to comfort.
“It’s an escape,” Miller explains of his painting process. “Sometimes I already have imagery in my head prior to getting in the studio; other times I have to sit and stare at it for five, ten minutes. But then the landscape starts to jump out at me and I roll with it. When I see the image, that is a peaceful time. That’s when the flow begins. Time doesn’t exist. It’s kind of my meditation.”
While this sounds very intimate, Miller’s work requires—no, expects—its viewer’s presence. As he describes his paintings, Miller never talks about his own journey or his own memories in detail. It’s always in terms of what his viewer might remember, know, and see. In this way, humanity isn’t missing from the landscapes; your presence is mandatory.
“One of the greatest compliments that I love hearing from people, and I get this all the time, is this piece reminds me of where I grew up, or this piece reminds me of home,” Miller says. “They’re seeing this generic painting, so to speak, generic in the sense that it’s not very well defined—it’s very subjective—and they’re finding pieces of their own memories and connecting the dots. I love that. I connect with my work, but I want other people to connect with it as well.”
It’s clear that Miller has tapped into something universal in the way people visualize memories or remember dreams. This connection has led to a rapid rise for the artist, who began painting full-time only a year ago. He has shown in The Rymer Gallery twice since last August, and Desiderium will be his first show as a featured artist.
Originally a watercolor painter (beginning at age 14), Miller now works with oil and water, but close inspection of his skies reveals watercolor techniques. Finishing touches consist of a traditional varnish on canvas or encaustic wax on board.
“The cool thing about encaustic wax is, when the wax is young, the wax will bloom and create a matte sheen on the surface,” Miller explains. “You buff it with a microfiber cloth like you would buff a car, and it creates this glossy sheen. So you can have a really glossy, glass-like surface or a really matte, obscure surface.” The glossier oil-slick finish makes Miller’s scenes seem even more malleable, with light and shimmering color suggestive of J.M.W. Turner’s landscapes.
There is torment here, but it’s balanced with peacefulness. The journey was long, but you are whole because of it. After all, in Miller’s contemporary landscapes, gold can stay. Such is the nature of memory.
“There is torment here, but it’s balanced with peacefulness. The journey was long, but you are whole because of it.”
“I think most people relate to childhood memories and wish they could go back to some of those times,” Miller says. “I think it’s more of just longing to be somewhere. Maybe it’s escapism. Maybe it’s a way to escape into the landscape.”