Given the title of Ashley Miller’s exhibition, Sweet Things, one might expect her photographs to contain a certain amount of eye candy, perhaps something gooey, or on a conceptual level, saccharine and cloying. Not so much. Instead, the confection on view through Feb. 3 at Blue Sky Gallery has been lost to the sidewalk where the ants have found it. Innocence has been replaced by repulsion, and one gets the feeling that Miller finds this rather sweet in and of itself.
However, this may not be the takeaway for every viewer, left wondering why the artist created such grotesqueries. Yet, in that wondering, if one then bothered to read the PR for the show, one would understand that Miller is interested in “the subtexts of desire, consumerism, and overabundance present in product and food photography,” adding, “modern society is built on overabundance and addiction.” Plus, she would have us all implicated, our revulsion springing from recognizing our own state of corruption. Indeed, she confesses that she is just as much a victim as well; only she has an outlet, because “this state of anxiety is the starting point for my work…peddling the fetish.”
This is Advertising 101 turned on its head, as the macabre is used as the emotional call-to-action. After all, if one can strategically generate a perceived need (or disgust), the audience can be drawn in. Yet, whereas in advertising lusciousness stimulates a desire for that which seems to be absent in one’s life, Miller’s work has desire and revulsion as two sides of the same coin, manifesting as compulsion.
This narrative is less straightforward in some photos than in others. For Meat Foot and Eggs, one knows that despite the elegance of the high-heeled shoe, in that it is stuffed with ground beef, there is surely an expense in wearing it. The eggs add another, albeit less obvious level to the scene. One egg is broken, spilling its contents onto the table. Another egg is partly in the light while a third lingers in the back shadows. Calling to mind the phrase “walking on eggshells,” we know something ugly has happened here.
As with the ground meat, Miller uses red quite a bit in her work. Known as perhaps the most appealing color in art, in Miller’s work it suggests the corporeal. In Toy Gun and Cherries, the red fabrics of both the background and table reflect in such an overwhelming fashion as to turn the ivory plastic of the gun’s grip to a pink fleshiness and the cap that signals the gun is not lethal from orange to a bright red. Never mind that the cherries are Maraschinos, and therefore of a saccharine red that carries a spectrum of associations, from kiddie cocktails to bar tricks involving the tongue. The cherries are angled in such a way that they could be hand-in-hand running for the hills. Reinforcing this tension, the gun is separated from the cherries by a fold in the fabric it rests upon and is kept further at bay by the tether to which it is attached.
Simpler compositions prevail in this exhibit, and it is their directness that might very well give them the immediate read of an advert (effects on the subconscious notwithstanding). In fact, potentially the most successful piece in the exhibit, Chocolate Covered Cherry, may be the simplest of Miller’s compositions. A drywall screw punctures the cordial, and a portion of the chocolate coating has broken away to reveal the “screwed” cherry. Juice spills onto fabric. Unfortunately, the sexualized violence implied in the image is somewhat diminished by the large size of the print. While comparable in size to all of the others in the exhibit, the impact of the piece is to be found in its intimacy. Miller might have done better to have printed it at one-quarter its current size.
Granted, it should not be necessary to point out that one must take into account all aspects of one’s image-making, and if this were the only flaw in the exhibit, I might well be accused of nit-picking. However, there were other troubling aspects. Miller must take care that the stylization within her images does not border on the perfunctory, and by this I mean that the photographed objects must not be seen as arbitrary—as opposed to ambiguous—or presented merely for shock value. This has the effect of creating an uneven narrative, with less of an metaphoric arch.
Additionally, five of the pieces in the main gallery are exhibited in what appear to be thrift store frames (only one is matted). One other framed piece in the front window is bordered/matted with grocery ads, The remaining seven prints are held to the wall with magnets. While the matting adds a level of meaning to the piece in the front window (the image is a loaf of bread covered in blue mold), the other framed pieces leave one wondering if this project was not quite ready for gallery presentation (and it also makes me think that the folks at Blue Sky were rather hands-off in helping the artist with decisions about presentation).
We must acknowledge that we have a complex relationship with the issues addressed in this work, which means that spectacle for its own sake or inconsistency in presentation (not always a bad thing) tend to neutralize criticality. Nevertheless, Miller’s thesis remains fairly intact, and despite my negative remarks, I do think this work has merit. And while it may take a particular viewer with a proclivity for the untoward to appreciate her darker sensibility, Miller’s approach is wholly appropriate for addressing the culturally reinforced anxieties with which we are inundated.