Miller's intriguing animals

NO one paints our furry and feathered friends better or more sympathetically than Melissa Miller. And no one puts them into more fascinating situations. If they aren't dancing by a jungle fire, they are swatting at the moon, conversing on stilts, playing with their shadows, challenging demons, masquerading as something else, or gathering by the hundreds for a trip in a mysterious ark. These independent-minded tigers, peacocks, hares, monkeys, and almost every other type of creature under the sun are neither cute nor coy, although they are beautifully painted and exist in a pictorial universe normally associated with fairy tales and myths.

Many art lovers believe, in fact, that those are precisely the categories to which Miller's paintings belong. How else can anyone explain their vaguely disquieting aura, their provocative blend of the fanciful and profound? If they're not painted fairy tales or myths, they ask, what else could they possibly be?

Something in between, one might suggest. Something that combines elements of both in a new and challenging fashion, and for reasons that have as much to do with playfulness and joy as with solemnity and depth.

A kind of painting, to be exact, that puts nonhuman creatures and their activities center stage; that revels in their peccadilloes and treats their activities with respect; that celebrates who and what they are, but always within a context that hints at parallels between their realities and those of mankind.

These parallels are close enough to give us brief, illuminating glimpses into ourselves.

Who, for instance, has not pretended, at one time or another, to be someone or something else, either for fun or for gain?

The same holds true in Miller's bird and animal world. There, rabbits parade around as foxes, ravens dress up in peacock feathers, and lions work their way closer to their unsuspecting victims under the cover of zebra skins.

Also, in her world, there are battles for territory or power; desperate struggles for survival against terrible odds; panic situations following or preceding disasters; and humiliations and cruelties inflicted by one group on another.

But there also are the pleasures, large and small, of shared experiences, and the moments of ecstasy or calm that often accompany being perfectly in tune with life.

It is all there, just as it is in the human world - except, of course, that in Miller's it is more wondrously portrayed.

Quite a few artists can draw, paint, or compose as well as she, and just as many have as rich an imagination. But, thanks to her, we can actually sense how desperately a salmon must fight to leap upstream, or how joyous and unrestrained a wolf's howl can be in the moonlight.

That is her special gift. Others may be able to describe life, to depict it, but she is able to embody and transmit it. And she does so simply and directly, by the immediacy of her paint handling, the vibrancy of her color, the energetic nature of her brushwork, but most of all, by the extraordinary sense of ``aliveness'' that is projected by her furry and feath-ered creations.

The more one studies her work, the clearer it becomes that animals and birds are not the real subjects of her paintings, that they are only the agents for what she actually wants to communicate: the richness, beauty, and intensity of life itself. That is what her pictures are all about, and why they are so special.

This is especially true of two recent series of acrylics on paper. In one, animals and birds masquerade as other creatures by wearing their skins or feathers, and in the other, monkeys, geese, bears, and wolves are confronted by a variety of spirits and demons.

In both, Miller demonstrates her remarkable color sense and her equally remarkable capacity for creative growth.

In the roughly four years since her work first attracted national attention via a Whitney Biennial Exhibition, she has improved dramatically, both conceptually and technically. In the process, she has gone from talented beginner to mature professional, from young painter of promise to an artist of considerable achievement.

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