Through Sat 9/21
On Wednesday Sept. 11, Cleveland art enthusiasts braved summer rain to come to Waterloo Arts and talk about depression. The conversation was led by Dan Miller, artist and curator of Rant Gallery. Through September 21, Waterloo Arts is home to his exhibit of paintings and sculpture called Some Disassembly Required.
Miller spoke about how he had designed to show both to be a personal document of his own mental illness and a relatable narrative about common experiences of depression. To cultivate a feeling of universality, Miller never appears in a faithful self-portrait. The recurring protagonist of his paintings is a slim figure with a television for a head (an old rear-projection unit, with crooked rabbit-ear antennae). The faceless figure is a stand-in for the audience, and a symbol of the feeling of being an “automaton” Miller said characterizes his depression.
In his artist’s talk, Miller said he had been diagnosed with bipolar II, a mental disorder whose sufferers experience recurring periods of major depression, interspersed with periods of relative stability and productivity. Unlike “type I” individuals, bipolar II sufferers do not undergo the “manic” episodes of frantic activity and grandiose thought popularly associated with the “bipolar disorder” label. This condition has persisted throughout Miller’s life. However, it was not until four years ago that he was catalyzed to make art about his mental health. He described 2015 as his “magical year of massive trauma,” which included the end of his marriage, two deaths in his family, and catastrophic motorcycle accidents.
Miller said that he has a strong support network now. In the last year, he had made art and opened a new gallery. But his condition is chronic. He does not see a clear-cut happy ending to his terrible 2015, even after surviving near-fatal traffic incidents. His memories of the crash and recovery are depicted in three paintings. One depicts the accident itself, with his TV-headed avatar horrifically flopping on red pavement as his wrecked motorcycle keeps skidding away. The second distills Miller’s post-traumatic fear of his crash site — a stretch of highway that is nondescript, except for a smear of red on the median wall. In the third, the TV-headed Miller sulks at the outer edges of a party, gripping his own arm. “I’m in extreme pain,” he thinks in barely-legible words. The other partygoers hide behind false smiley masks.
“There was no catharsis, no new lease on life. I was annoyed and in pain,” Miller said. There was, however, determination to make life with depression easier for others. Miller remarked that fellow depressives often express sentiments to the effect, “No one can possibly understand what I’m going through.” It’s his hope that Some Disassembly Required can help people to stop feeling alone in their struggles. Already, he has had gallery visitors thank him for his work.
“I’ve tried very hard to harness this. I have a renewed desire to help people. The single fact that people have reached out honestly to say how much it means to them matters so much,” Miller said.
Depression can be romanticized, described as the malaise of poets who have glimpsed the tragedy of the world. Others respond to it with fearful science, or unhelpful recommendations for how sufferers might bootstrap themselves out of their illness (“Have you tried yoga?”). Miller’s art brings depression down to earth. In every painting, it is present as a totally opaque black cloud, large enough to shade whatever scene unfolds beneath it. Beneath the almost demonic clouds, Miller’s scenes are poignant, but mundane. He shows us piles of laundry, a sink full of unwashed dishes, and bathroom where he goes to hide when he does not feel like socializing.
“We don’t talk about the little things of depression. It’s not just crying uncontrollably. It’s little shit, like not cleaning the dishes for a month,” Miller said. The “little stuff,” Miller explained, can create a reinforcing cycle of self-loathing. Piles of dishes or laundry are unsightly, smelly reminders of inhibited productivity. Their presence in a home inspires guilt, which worsen the depression which delayed the chores in the first place.
Miller’s images are drawn with his signature scratchy style. The aesthetic is well-suited for the subject. His jittery black likes make his world literally look like it is unraveling. Objects are set against backgrounds brightly colored with turquoise, hot pink or creamsicle orange. These backgrounds often stretch much further across the canvas than the scene itself. Again, Miller’s visual choices support his work’s theme. The world of the depressive is shrunken, withdrawn from fresh air, exploration and social contact. Miller also said the bright colors were meant to make the works accessible. “It would have been easy to go unbelievably morbid. But I wanted [the show] to be approachable. As approachable as possible” Miller said.
Between paintings, the walls of the gallery themselves have been painted with black clouds. The stormy omens transform the gallery itself. We feel as if we’ve stepped inside one of Miller’s paintings, that we are standing beneath the same black skies his TV-headed avatar slumps under.
The clouds play an additional role as stand-ins for what Miller says “should have been.” Many depression sufferers experience diminished attention and motivation. Often, they cannot muster the will to do things they love, or that they know would make them feel better. Despite caring deeply about the exhibition, in trying to assemble the show, Miller struggled for months with what he calls “procrastination.” Many of the images on the walls were completed in just three days, immediately before the show was hung.
The clouds hover in the spots where Miller would have displayed more paintings, had his time not been stolen from him. But there are other missing images. No one can process all their emotions at once. Some Disassembly Required required self-exploration on Miller’s part. He had to feel out what he was ready and willing to discuss. The project let him be open for the first time about some of his struggles. But he found there were other topics he was not yet ready to paint.
“There were images that I need to do, but I didn’t have it in me to start,” Miller said.
Despite the cloud’s bleakness, they have a silver lining. Miller is selling Post-it sized black clouds paintings, with 50 percent of proceeds going to Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other mental health organizations.