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Institute of Contemporary Art Miami

John Miller: The Fig Leaf Was Brown (Excerpt)

John Miller: The Fig Leaf Was Brown (Excerpt)

“The Fig Leaf Was Brown” was reproduced with permission by JRP|Ringier from the publication John Miller: The Ruin of Exchange, 2012, available for sale online and at ICA Miami.

To a working artist, the prospect of broad categorizations that tend to organize art historical research and analysis—such as the classical versus the romantic, the geometric versus the organic, landscape, portraiture or still life, painting, drawing or sculpture, the erotic, the religious, the pastoral, or the scatological for that matter—seem somewhat removed from the day-to-day exigencies of art production. What actually goes into making an artwork is often either much more refractory than that—just in the first stages of being ordered—or else much more contingent, shaped by various topical concerns. Perhaps because art remains virtually a luxury commodity produced under a marginal, quasi-bohemian economics of scarcity, artists as a rule are not so much given to sweeping perspectives; instead, they focus on what they can use at the moment. Classification typically becomes a lower priority for artists than it is for historians. By this I do not mean to imply that my own particular insights as a practitioner offer something more, or less, than a proper academic approach. Rather, they are necessarily different, and so I must clarify the basis from which I speak. One challenge for the art historian is to understand what conditions create and perpetuate a given category and, conversely, how the legitimization of the category in turn shapes what appears to be the artist’s available possibilities and alternatives. The challenge for the artist, thrust into the false position of an independent producer for the market, is often just to be able to reproduce her or his nominal means of production.

In response to an invitation to write a text concerning scatology in contemporary art, I replied that in lieu of such an overview, I could write more directly about the assumptions and development of my own work—which is characterized by a brown excremental impasto—with the understanding that these remarks might also represent similar concerns of other artists; the relationship of my work to this category is hardly unique. Moreover, for me it is not so much a question of scatological references, as it is one of a relation between excremental material and art’s underpinnings in a libidinal economy and commodity fetishism. But before raising some theoretical points, I would like to give a narrative account of how I came to use the trope that qualifies my work as scatological, because an artist’s choice of material and technique—not to mention subject-matter—is never just that, it is also the result of predispositions inscribed within particular ideological and institutional frameworks.

Initially, my deployment of brown impasto did not arise out of a programmatic decision to address scatological themes per se. Rather it was a gradual outgrowth of an established work process, a repertoire of competences and procedures carried out in my studio, which was at first only a studio apartment. In 1981, I began working on a series of paintings that considered the idea of scenario as an ideological construct—or, dialectically, as a construct of ideology. Because they followed a period in which I made videotapes and artist’s books, these works constituted a return to painting that was not so much an affirmation as it was a counter-refusal predicated on a series of prior refusals. In the course of painting these pictures, I began to form a distinct set of ideas and attitudes about the materials I was using. My art school instruction in painting (Rhode Island School of Design, 1972–1974) was steeped in the Abstract Expressionist ethos still prevalent in the painting departments of most American art schools at that time. This I had determined to reject as much as possible, but it was only a rejection of what had been long before discredited by Pop art. On the other hand, I meant to avoid Pop’s authoritarian slickness, its machine-made look. Instead I wanted to make small-scale works that required a minimum of equipment and skills. I based my technique on William Blake’s notion that paint should be applied in thin transparent layers to create an effect of luminosity. Blake had further equated luminosity with spirituality, but for me spirituality was out of the question. I was working quite intensively then, painting one picture a day for a period of nine months. In the course of this regimen, I acquired a different sense of painting, quite at odds with the positive one suggested by Blake: that the process of painting a picture entailed the physical transfer of material—pigment suspended in acrylic medium—to the surface of the canvas in a series of slow, even, repetitive strokes which sealed off the surface of the canvas from top to bottom. This less-than-wholesome process I associated with repression. I only vaguely equated the paint with shit; I didn’t necessarily think of it as shit per se, but rather as something generally “shitty.” After initially fighting this association, I eventually came to capitalize on it.

The first works I made in this vein were self-portraits, brown finger-paintings on two mirrors that I had purchased in second-hand shops. I planned to execute them by simply tracing the outlines of my features over the surface of the mirror, unaware that in practice this is extremely difficult. The result-ing portraits turned out to be rather murky, but the material presence of paint was strikingly palpable: brushstrokes, or rather fingerstrokes, suspended over the mirror’s evanescent surface. It was two years before I made another brown work. By then I was prepared to confront the idea of excrement both as my subject matter and as a formal principle. I decided to paint a series of brown abstract pictures. I meant these to be “pictures of pictures,” representing what I thought might be the proverbial man (or woman) on the street’s idea of fine art in the mid-1980s. Of course, this implied a time lag vis-à-vis contemporary discourse. In retrospect, I can say that the stylization of these paintings was influenced by Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and John McLaughlin. Curiously, my Abstract Expressionist training had reasserted itself through the negativity of a popular vernacular, be it real or imaginary. What I meant to be uncanny or disconcerting about the paintings was the reiteration of the color brown, burnt sienna, in picture after picture, 20 times over. This gesture may seem overly didactic, but it passed without remark on the occasions that I exhibited the series; reviewers tended to regard the installations as a kind of appropriation art.

What was disappointing about these paintings was that they always looked better when they were wet; by the time they dried, the acrylic brushstrokes had flattened out considerably. After one week, the impasto was completely gone. It was only the recurrent color, and not the palpability of the physical stroke, that might have registered any departure from the formalist abstraction that these paintings were intended to undercut. Thus, the critical function of the work hinged on technical considerations. I knew that if I wanted to continue to work with acrylics and to resolve this problem as well, I would have to use an additional material—modeling paste—to create a permanent texture. And for me, the choice of acrylic constituted a renunciation of oil paint’s connotation of authenticity; it underscored painting as a representational act. Because model-ing paste is white and opaque, it produces pastel shades when it is added directly to paint. Ordinarily, one must build up areas of texture and allow them to dry before applying the desired color. What is important about this seemingly trivial technical factor is that it denaturalizes the brushstroke by making it a slow, “artificially” constructed entity, amenable to allegorical adaptation and at odds with the Abstract Expressionist cult of spontaneity. As soon as I began using modeling paste, I started to exaggerate the impasto, intrigued by the idea that a real brushstroke could function as a cartoon. Although acrylic paint was marketed after the Second World War as an inexpensive substitute for oils, for me its allegorical potential lies in its imperfection, its failure to replicate completely the appearance of oil paint. At the same time, acrylic is a kind of plastic paint and carries with it the utopian promise of “plasticity,” the ability to assume any form. Yet ironically, this makes it somewhat akin to the heterogeneity and polymorphousness of excrement, a decidedly dystopian ideal. In my work, the inclusion of modeling paste opened the way for a number of other elements: twigs, model houses, figures, Styrofoam, sand, gravel, skateboards—all of which could be subsumed under a uniform brown coating.

I have worked in this mode for a period of over eight years. My theoretical perspective arose in part out of my manual activity in the studio, which was in turn transformed by theoretical insights. Of course my education and class background created certain proclivities, but I would like to stress the differential between theory and practice, that theory did not present itself as a ready-made construct—that contra Sol LeWitt, the idea was not the “machine” that automatically and autonomously made the art. I have called the constructed brushstroke that I use “allegorical” in connection with its excremental connotations, but what is it exactly an allegory of? Or is the very idea of an exact allegory implicitly specious? Let us consider shit as a common-sense metaphor as it appears in everyday speech.

A cursory survey of colloquialisms: first, there is shit as an active, aggressive element, a weapon: “shit or be shat upon,” “he was shitty to her,” “eat shit,” and so on. Then there is shit as a passive, entropic element, an obstruction: “cut through the bullshit,” “get this shit out of my way,” “shit work.” Then there is shit as essence: “kick the shit out of him,” “cannot tell shit from Shinola,” “get your shit together,” “scared shitless.” And shit as Other: “various, assorted shit,” “shit-faced,” “the shit hit the fan.” These active and passive, intrinsic and extrinsic valences of shit are not mutually exclusive. But in these examples at least, shit seems to change value depending on whether it remains contained within one’s own body or whether it has been excreted, and it is, as such, closely associated with notions of control and willpower, or a lack thereof. Within a humanistic or a religious framework, shit also tends to exert a negative connotation because, like pornography, it reminds humankind of its inescapable animal nature. Outside such a framework, the moral question is nonexistent. Accordingly, shit functions as a context-dependent metaphor that nonetheless sustains overlapping and contradictory readings. The ones I have mentioned are only the most obvious.

As opposed to these unreflective and sometimes visceral conceptions of feces, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud offer a systematic analysis that explicitly links excrement and art-making. Disavowal facilitates Freud’s sense of art making as a sublimated anal urge while, at the same time, the purpose of art-making seems, tautologically, to prove the efficacy of sublimation. Sublimation exerts itself as a kind of patrimony; the urge to make art has something to do with totemism, a visualization of God. Barnett Newman, for example, wanted his paintings to create the sensation of Man standing in judgment before God. The materiality of physical artwork operates in the order of the sacred, that which lies outside the sphere of utility, bringing together what is deemed worthless with that which supersedes all values. Freud suggested one factor that structures this opposition: in the infantile mind feces appear as a detachable phallus, in other words, as the first artificial signifier. This also seems to approximate the semiotic status of the artwork. Yet it is important not to treat Freud’s ideas deterministically, i.e., to insist that beneath the surface of every artwork lurks shit and that the unrealized goal of every artist is to model feces. Rather, Freud volatilizes a historically relative network of meanings, both latent and overt. These in part comprise the not-always-rational a priori of valuation and evaluation processes, economic or aesthetic—the separation between the two is somewhat artificial. The broad contrast between the indolent orality of the feudal system, in which the symbolic power of the nobility was rooted in its potential for waste and prodigality, and the comparative anal retentiveness of capital, which seeks to waste nothing and to recuperate every expenditure, illustrates at least one way in which Freudian thought may be bound up in its particular historical milieu.

As the feminist critic Juliet Mitchell put it, Freudianism is not a matter of hunting down phallic symbols, but rather it is a means of interrogating a (patriarchal) culture in which all signification tends to be phallic in nature. For an artist deliberately to incorporate fecality in her or his work then is to make art about art via a psychoanalytic detour. Ironically, the detour may be more significant than the self-referentialism; it at least shows selfhood to be a construct. The contradiction is that this excremental self-consciousness tends to render the artwork in question decidedly less fecal, insofar as feces begin to be understood primarily as an aesthetic vehicle. Moreover one wonders, “how threatening is real shit?” And the answer is, “not terribly.” Rather, it seems that it is the artworks operating under the sign of Beauty or the Sublime that commit truly fecal indiscretions against which the “transgressive” artist can’t compete: the waist-high sculpture with thick orange scales, the paintings of lemons rendered in tar, the monument on the square. Just as psychoanalysis made its cultural interventions through various forms of allegory (the primal father, the Oedipus complex, “acting out,” etc.), so art that takes its own fecality into account is necessarily allegorical art—and the stuff of allegory is never what it purports to be. It is precisely through this allegorical transformation that so-called scatological art holds out its potential for the practice of a non-reductive, materialist (i.e., politicized) aesthetics.


John Miller, “The Fig Leaf Was Brown” (1993), John Miller: The Ruin of Exchange, JRP|Ringier, Zurich 2012, pp. 273–279.

Part of Idea 005: Self-Made Man

Self-determination is a foundational cultural belief, particularly in American mythology, and characterized by faith in meritocracy, middle class self-expression and freedom of choice. John Miller’s work has frequently focused on the figure, and its life in social spaces, in order to point out the material reality that forms us all. Consumption and communication play key roles in constructing our “selves,” as witnessed by Miller’s interest in the banal and the everyday. Through his mannequins, material artifacts and photography, Miller poses a challenge: can the “self-made man” create the conditions that surround, determine and produce us?