It's hard to believe that Liz Miller's elaborate installations start out as nothing more than a few bolts of colored felt, fishing wire, and some scrapbooking brads. Through a time-intensive process of projecting, tracing, cutting, and hanging, the Minneapolis-based artist creates sculptural, vibrant works that call to mind a technicolor Rorschach test. Although that comparison was never a conscious goal for the artist, she likes that viewers can draw their own conclusions from her work.
Miller has been working on a custom installation at Redux since Oct. 1, and she has enjoyed the relaxed pace of the process — usually she only has a few days to install a project, as opposed to a few weeks. When we stopped in last week, she was more than halfway done thanks to help from interns and volunteers. The cut-out pieces of felt had been folded in various shapes and hung from the walls and ceilings using the brads and fishing wire. "I love the idea of making something really impactful and large-scale with really humble, simple, everyday materials," she says. Although it's easy to miss on first glance, a closer look reveals that most of the fabric elements are made in the shape of weapons.
"I've been working with imagery for a while that I consider to be both beautiful and sinister," Miller says, citing a past project that used radar imagery from storm systems. She says the symmetry of her installations make the imagery a little more subtle, particularly with the weapons. "The symmetry works as a kind of camouflaging device. The weapons are fairly obvious in this if you really look, but people also see a lot of organic forms, and it also becomes ornament and decoration, which is part of what interested me in the weapon imagery in the first place. Weapons are so beautiful as objects, though what they do isn't beautiful. I think people generally find symmetry pleasing, and so I like contradicting that with other sets of imagery that are sort of embedded in that symmetry."
Miller creates the pieces with a low-tech process that involves making stencils using Photoshop, projecting them onto fabric, and cutting them out by hand. "A lot of it is based on play," Miller says about putting the pieces together. "I call it wonky origami. I sort of look for ways to use these simple shapes that I think can be evocative. ... But I don't want them to become illustrations of something. I don't want people to say, oh, there's a gun and it's shooting a bullet. It's not that kind of work."
It's admittedly a slow process, but Miller says, "The slowness of it allows me to deviate from the plan, and it's kind of my thinking time. Sometimes I think I'm going to do one thing, and as I continue to work, the work evolves and I realize I'm going to do this instead."
Miller studied painting and drawing in college and graduate school, and the evolution to her current, unique style was a gradual one. "My work started with an interest in collage in a really traditional sense on two-dimensional surfaces," she says. "And then it progressed to becoming more and more layered, and larger and larger, and then it moved out into space from there, so it was a gradual transition."
Once she did installations, she was hooked. "The first time I did an installation, a work that was made for a particular space, the thing that excited me about it was the sort of problem-solving that has to happen on site," she says. "It's sort of suspenseful in a way. You get there with all of the ingredients, but you have to make it work on the site. I found that I really liked that unpredictability and the process of it. To tailor the work for the space, to have the work really respond to the space, is really exciting for me."
When Miller's Redux exhibition is over in November, it will be taken apart and, like most of her other works, all that will remain of them are photographic records and stored boxes of fabric scraps. "I like that," Miller insists, "that it can have this life and be sort of ephemeral. And usually by the time a show comes down, I'm working on new projects and using that knowledge of what I did here and carrying it with me to the next project. I'm totally fine with it."