CULTURE- ART FEATURE- If only...: Miller impresses and frustrates

Image courtesy of the artist

"If only"– two words I resist thinking whenever I view an exhibition. To state the obvious, art is subjective, and the first person to assess an artwork's success is the artist who created it. He or she is the initial— and perhaps ultimate— judge of whether a given piece fulfills the intention that fueled its creation. To wish work were somehow different seems unfair.

Yet occasionally, as with Lavely Miller's current McGuffey Art Center show, "My Mother Won't Let Me Use the Good Title," I can't help but say, "If only..." In this case what I find myself repeating is, "If only she had left well enough alone." (Although there's also: "If only I knew what she was trying to get at here.")

Miller's paintings and drawings, depicting sullen faces, broken bodies, and darting tongues, reveal her formidable skill set as an artist. She understands anatomy, particularly facial structure, and re-creates its sense– sometimes exaggerating particular features— to astonishing effect. She has an unerring eye for detecting light and shadow and uses negative space in unexpected ways. Her palette choices are often unusual and thrilling– ochre hair blazes against a stormy teal background while lime-green shadows surround raspberry-tinged mouths. Plus Miller has developed an unusual technique of using her fingers to paint with acrylics, yielding strange, impressionistic strokes.

Yet she also commonly overlays her pieces with mock-stenciled or scrawled text expressing obscure messages or numbers that seem disconnected to the images. In the pencil drawing "Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train," two exquisitely rendered feet arch across the frame from the left side. The composition is powerful. But running above and below the feet are the outlines of the work's title (a Google search reveals it to be the name of a 1998 French film), along with the simple outline of a key. What the words and key have to do with the feet is unclear, and they distract and detract from the drawing's force. (If only they weren't there... )

Miller's exhibition also includes several large, multi-panel paintings, each containing faces— often fixations Miller recycles through several pieces— words, and design elements brought together in a pastiche resembling collaged magazine cutouts. Any unity or coherent meaning to Miller's schemes, however, is hard to detect. And too often blah-colored elements—like targets or nail outlines– damp down her lustrous portraits.

Miller may have achieved exactly what she intended with these works. If only...

Lavely Miller's exhibition, "My Mother Won't Let Me Use the Good Title," is on view in the McGuffey Center's main gallery through August 19. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.