Dan Miller

In Issue 44, Artist Profile caught up with Australian artist Dan Miller in Kim’s Corner Food in Chicago, a convenience store that also contains an art gallery. Poised among the stock of candy bars, cereal packets and fridges filled with milk are floor-to-ceiling geometric cut-out collages and assemblages created by store-owner and artist Thomas Kong. Past the groceries is The Back Room, a gallery space that evolved from a conversation between Kong and Miller, who are now co-conspirators, linked by their different approach to how artists can work outside the studio. We spoke to Miller about how he has embedded himself and his practice in suburban Chicago.

You studied law and political science, worked as a security guard at GOMA and then finally began your art studies in Melbourne at RMIT, followed by a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at Northwestern University in Chicago. How did this winding pathway influence your approach to art?
I am a naturally sceptical person and never swallowed whole the myths of art. Even when doing my MFA I was antagonistic towards what I saw as assumptions that people were making about art – reasons to make art or to participate in a particular structure. Doubt is not something that is valued. Everybody in the art world is on the brink of an existential crisis, and you are not even able to say it – you can’t even ask the question, what are we doing here? Or what is the purpose of this?

Travelling from Melbourne to America, how do you place yourself?
I don’t consider myself ‘US-based’ – I’m definitely Chicago-based. My loyalties are to this particular community now, and this is the place where I am operating. I think displacement in general affects the way that you are paying attention to what’s around you. It is no coincidence that it was in the first few months I was in Chicago that I met Thomas Kong at Kim’s Corner Food. I was very alive to that context and responded to it.

What sparked the collaboration?
It happened quite organically. In 2014 I had just moved here to start grad school at Northwestern. I had a private studio for the first time, I was getting a stipend, and was putting all this pressure on myself, thinking I’m going to have to go into production mode and wall myself off from the world and develop a studio practice.

I was caricaturing it. All those things were on my mind and as I was settling into my neighbourhood, I walked past the store and saw Thomas’s collages in the window and went in. I was like, this guy is the most prolific artist I’ve ever met and he is not separated from the world. I would hang out with him and started to get to know him and we started swapping things.

How did the Back Room at Kim’s Corner Food come about?
He was interested in the fact I was an educated artist and had some connection to the art world. Eventually he said to me, ‘I want to start a gallery’. I was like ‘Wow, okay that is a curve ball, but I should just respond to it.’ The Back Room became a way of expanding his world out to other people and artists, and putting him on a horizontal plane with other artists.

You work across many mediums and you wear various hats as facilitator, collaborator and artist. What does this enable you to do?
I guess it is being able to be plastic. It allows me to not be thinking about over-production. I feel that usually the word artist, even though that is often the first word I use to describe myself, naturally implies the production of things. If I am dancing around that assumption, then hopefully it allows me to be playful and do something that isn’t necessarily art. Or do the opposite with a very artistic gesture as a kind of counterbalance.

Which artists influence your approach to blurring art and non-art?
Some of the artists I admire do ordinary things that sit within the art world and the non-art world. Bernard Brunon ran a business called That’s Painting Productions, which was a painting business and also a functioning art project. He would paint people’s houses and then title the painting. If he was invited to do a show in a museum, he would paint a wall there with his crew. He just slips between the two states. That is one way I am trying to think about things in the future.

Humour underlies a lot of your work – you authenticated bricks for ‘Outside Jokes’, at DEMO Project in 2017.
Yeah, it is humour and sort of bootlegging. The bricks I used were a re-make of a brick that was sold from the first Comiskey Park, the Chicago White Sox baseball stadium that was demolished in the early 1990s. This wrecking company that got the contract to knock it down made plaques for the bricks that said ‘this is an original Comiskey Park Brick’ and included their name – the certificate of authenticity was on the object. It was like a self-authenticating artwork, which I loved. The exhibition at DEMO Project was the last show before the building was going to be demolished, so while it was still standing I issued some authentic bricks.

How do you approach materials in your work?
My practice has developed a bootlegging approach. For me I have always been interested in people’s use of materials that are intentional and unusual and have a certain autonomy to them. I like signwriting and other vernacular visual and material practices that are not always classified as art. When I make something it is usually riffing on something that already exists, or reconceptualising a certain kind of vernacular practice.

You and Thomas both work with materials that are familiar and from the everyday, creating works with a sense of play and transformation.
Right. We did a set of six shopping baskets together that are in the store as functional baskets and there is another set of six that are ‘art objects’. I try to pay close attention to specific materials, creating things that could exist in dual contexts – both playful and useful.

Are you aware of bringing an Australian sensibility to your work and collaborations in Chicago?
It’s funny, I think about this sometimes. One of the things that is built into the Australian character is that, while there is a respect for structure and authority, there is still an open mockery of the way things function. Australians can live in two worlds at once – one where they are completely sceptical and one in which they are completely and utterly respectful. Whereas here in the United States you have to basically just respect the structure, or you might be able to make a sincere critique of the structure as long as you maintain your respect for it.

What has returning to Australia been like for you?
I have tried to maintain some connection with Melbourne, with the Thomas Kong exhibition at TCB art inc. in 2016, and then organising Australian artist Janenne Eaton’s exhibition here at The Back Room earlier this year. When I visit Australia now, I feel like I have enough distance from it that I can approach it with curiosity – ‘what is this strange place that I am from?’ – and try to see it from different angles. There is so much of the country that I haven’t seen and that is mysterious to me, and I want to learn from it more.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018


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