Interview by J. Fiona Ragheb
Adam Lee Miller is a poly artist who has lived and worked in Detroit since 1989. Miller’s disciplines include painting, drawing, music, sound, installation, video and performance. He holds a BFA in painting from the Center for Creative Studies. He is one half of the band ADULT. (with Nicola Kuperus) which has been recording and performing worldwide since 1997. ADULT. has performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under composer Tod Machover along with hundreds of live performances from Moscow to Bogota. ADULT. has recorded for labels Mute Records (London), Ghostly International (NY), Thrill Jockey (Chicago), Clone Records (Rotterdam) and their own imprint Ersatz Audio. Miller and Kuperus created a feature film entitled The Three Grace(s) Triptych from 2008-2010. The film has been shown at several film festivals, along with screenings at Anthology Film Archives (NY) and Detroit Institute of Arts. He has exhibited visual work at galleries such as Reyes Projects (Birmingham, MI), P! (NY), Cranbrook Art Museum (Bloomfield Hills, MI), Simone DeSousa Gallery (Detroit), and Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh). He and Kuperus’ most recent performance work has been at Roulette (NY) and Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead (MOCAD). He has participated in artist residencies in Saitama, Japan and Mexico City. He is also the recipient of a 2013 Knight Arts Challenge Grant.
J. Fiona Ragheb (JFR): You've achieved notable success as one half of the band, ADULT., and even have your own music label. You're also a prolific artist, and your work was most recently seen in a group show at Reyes Projects. Could you talk about the relationship that exists, if there is one, between those two practices?
Adam Lee Miller (ALM): Obviously just the act of making. When Nicola [Kuperus] and I met, we were talking about what makes you who you are, what are you passionate about? And we both agreed that it was just about making, we just really liked making stuff, we always did since we were young kids, and never stopped.
Her mom had a piano, my mom had a piano, and never learned how to play, but would sit there and write songs, you know, making. Or you had a pencil, and paper, you were drawing, painting. So if there's any correlation other than aesthetics, I mean, you can talk about aesthetics from the fact that our music's very precise—it's electronic, it's syncopated, it's anal retentive, and that tends to go through all of our work.
Even the fact that I'm really into doing square paintings, which someone pointed out was the same as designing record jackets which are square. That was an interesting thing I never thought about. And so, of course the aesthetic thing, but minus that I think it's a John Lennon quote, "I can't play the tuba, but if you give me one I'll write you a song." It's just that, it's ... This house, which almost killed us on the seventh year of renovations now gives back a lot, and it gives back the same way that our practices give—we can be super intense in a part of the house, or with a discipline—I could be just painting for three months, and then I'm up in the attic and working on music.
And something about that, it's like a refresher, and it's the same with the house where we'll spend all winter in the library, spend all summer in the backyard, but then there'll be times we're in this building almost exclusively, and then we'll be up in the attic exclusively, or ...
JFR: So is that the way your collaboration operates rather than running on two parallel tracks?
ALM: Yes, we don't really multi-task the work. We just finished writing all the demos for the new album, and friends have a cabin up in Cheboygan, Michigan, right on Lake Huron, and we took a small amount of gear, and we went up there and just wrote music every day. We did it for two weeks in December, and two weeks in January, and there were no other disciplines.
Nicola is better at multi-tasking than I am. She was already trying to come up with the album title. She does all the artwork mostly and she was already doing that and I said, "I don't have any comments, my head's in this. I don't even know what songs are going to make it on the record."
So, she's much better at that. She can visualize anything—music, visual work, interior design—but I always say I'm a collagist. It's the same with sound, painting, drawing—it doesn't look like collage work, but I have to have physical stuff I move, and you know, with electronic music you can do that.
JFR: So is that the way you actually start out in terms of creating these works? In terms of quite literally beginning with collage? Or do you mean more conceptually?
ALM: I mean conceptually. Nicola can visualize a photo, she'll draw it in her sketchbook, then she'll take it and it'll look exactly like the sketch. I have to think, "Okay, I like these rooms right now that are really somewhat depressing, and just that kind of office complex." I knew that's where I wanted to start, but then I just draw with pencil, and then I'll gesso over the pencil, and I'll draw again, and I'll draw again. So yes, I don't start with actual collage, but I start with two things, and put them together and think, "Does that work? No, does that?"
I probably change the paint color on every painting eight times, which is extremely laborious because everything's hard edge, so I have to tape everything off, and then pull it off and think, "Oh, it's the wrong color." Tape it all up again, do it again and think, "Oh, that's the wrong color."
JFR: You don't use the computer at all in terms of trying to determine that before you start?
ALM: I'm guessing I don't do that partially because we use that for recording the music, and I don't really like computers, I don't like being on them all the time. We don't write ... We only use the computer to record everything that's being generated outside with actual gear, and that would be I guess the same here, everything's generated.
JFR: How would you describe your practice—aside from being a collagist, and the somewhat compulsive nature of it that you mentioned? How would you describe your work?
ALM: I'm the Detroit premier anal retentive collagist. [laughter]
JFR: They depict seemingly mundane architectural spaces or elements like studs and PVC pipe, but on closer inspection there's something almost uncanny about them.
JFR: There’s another aspect to them in terms of the way they represent space, but also seem to reinforce the flatness of the picture plane, so that there is this tension within them as well.
ALM: In school, Peter Halley was someone whose paintings I admired. I read his book multiple times, and so that flatness has always been ... It's not like I wasn't already into flatness, it's just you find someone else who puts it into words for you.
The uncanny thing is really interesting that you say that, because I spend a lot of time with color, because I think there's something that triggers this sort of ... I'm always trying to have something that's familiar, and slightly off, a correlation would be someone like David Lynch. He's really good at, "Oh, there's the diner we all know, but there's something off about it." For me, it's in color, and it's in flatness versus depicted space, so that fence there, I spent countless hours not with a computer trying to figure out how to make something that brought you in, but at the same time was completely flat, and getting the shadows in the wet ground—none of that makes any sense, and it looks like it makes sense that that's the reflection, but it's not. It's completely made up. I thought I would take it and just flip it down, and it didn't work at all because the fence itself isn't quite right.
JFR: You mentioned David Lynch. I'm wondering, where does your interest in architecture come from? Or is it even really an interest in architecture? Is it architecture in the service of something else?
Adam Lee Miller: When I turned 13 my dad said to me, "Well, you're a teenager now, if you want any money you can come work at the job sites," and he was a builder. And he said, "You get paid by the hour, but you're not getting allowance anymore." So, at 13 I started on construction sites, and so I know how to build. I can build a house from the foundation to the roof.
So, it comes not necessarily from architecture in the sense that I don't have a long list of architects I like.
JFR: Perhaps I should've said the “constructed environment” ...
ALM: I was thinking about this yesterday. I don't even have a relation to architecture, and that's when I realized it's building materials—something that everybody's familiar with. You know, everybody knows what a piece of plywood looks like, the two by fours I do, the PVC plumbing, and all that.
So it comes from as they say writers should write what they know, and I know building, and I find it an interesting way to convey ideas on a multiple read, so ...
JFR: It's interesting you say that in terms of architecture or building materials being something that everybody knows because your work seems to have a sense of the vernacular about it. It seems to be somewhat Midwestern, or even have this sense of Americana, not because of the building materials per se, but because of the wallpaper patterns, some of the fencing motifs, and that kind of thing.
ALM: Mike Kelley is someone whose work has been on my mind a lot recently, and the Midwest part of his work I really identify with, and I think you can get really perverse when you're playing with such kind of wholesome Midwestern motifs. You know, like this is a nice fence in water painting, but the painting is called Red Fence (with Golden Showers), and that's gold rain coming down, so it's that sort of being transgressive through the back door.
JFR: I wanted to ask you about that because the uncanny quality that I referenced in the beginning is often compounded by titles like that, or what's the name of the other piece? Swapping Spit? The work seems to take on an almost anthropomorphic quality.
ALM: Especially that one. The painting over there is called Suggestive Floor Plan, and I think it's funny because everybody says, "Oh yeah, I see it's a penis." But it's also a vagina, it's both in one, why are you only seeing the one?
JFR: Right. And then of course there are some people who would possibly completely miss that altogether.
ALM: I have had people stand in front of my work and say, "Well, this is the overhead view of what you're seeing down below," and they can't see it, they cannot see it, it's fascinating. No, it's a floor plan, and it's modeled, and they react with, "I don't understand." Well then there's nothing I can do here.
JFR: But I mean even the reference to the more transgressive aspect of the work. Obviously in the case of titles like Golden Showers, it's hopefully more explicit.
ALM: But you know, some people miss it, and I love that idea. I love the idea that my work could be collected by someone that had no idea, and they have it up in there and they're giving a house tour and say, "This is Golden Showers," and someone laughs, "Ha ha ha," and they respond, "What? What's so funny?" "Well, you know what a golden shower is, right?" "No. I bought what? I just thought it was pretty."
And that's the same with the music. I think dance music's a great ... It's just like cartoons, you know, are a great vessel for saying deeper stuff. 9 to 5 is my favorite feminist film—through comedy though—it's a big hit. Same with dance music, you got a beat, all right, but then you can do all this other stuff around it.
JFR: You mentioned Mike Kelley a few minutes ago, and I wanted to ask how working in Detroit has an influence on your work, if in fact it does.
ALM: It does. I mean, it totally does. I moved here in '89, and it was the roughest time. Looking at all the work, you know, because there is not a large collector base here, nobody makes any money off their work so you see a lot of artists use found materials, and early on being facetious I said, "You know, we don't need to see another art show of old mufflers nailed to the wall. We need color, we need precision." It came directly from going to show after show where you're just tired of rusty found metal, and crappy found materials with paint thrown on top.
Like I said, I'm naturally anal retentive, but it was definite motivation to make work that was the antithesis of what I was seeing.
JFR: So in your solo practice as an artist, do you work exclusively in the realm of painting and works on paper?
ALM: No, I've done sculpture. I don't think I've ever made a video piece on my own. I've never done an installation on my own. So yeah, I guess it would be painting, drawing, and some sculpture here and there.
JFR: Following up on the question of what it's like to work in Detroit, I'm curious, you were in a show at Reyes Projects that just closed, that's all Detroit artists. I know you've been in other shows like that, for instance at the Mattress Factory. What is it like for you to be in shows that are defined just by the fact that you are practicing here?
ALM: I really don't think about it. I don't love being in a Detroit show, but it's just like with music. You get put into a genre, and people need it, there's so much information out there if you don't start categorizing, I mean where would you start? So, for me it's a necessary evil. I mean, I hate genres, but it's just what happens.
JFR: You mentioned Mike Kelley, and also Peter Halley. I think it's interesting you also mentioned David Lynch because it speaks to the ... the word's escaping me ... the multiplicity of your practice for lack of a better term. Are there other artists that you look to, or is there a way in which you position yourself in relationship to the history of contemporary art, or contemporary art practices? Or how do you see your work relating to the trajectory of contemporary art?
ALM: I don't know, that's not my job. That's a writer's job.
JFR: So it's not something that you think about, other than the references you made to Peter Halley, and ...
ALM: Yeah, I mean, it sounds perhaps oversimplified, but when I started writing music I just went with, “I'm gonna write music that I want to hear in my house” and I just feel the same with the work. It's something I would like in my house. Music proved that that works, because you know, we have a 20 year career, and some people like it. So, it's really just that simple ... I would like to see that painting in my house, so I made it.
JFR: I'm curious about your works on paper in relationship to your paintings. Are they completely separate enterprises or are they studies?
ALM: Some have become ... Well, going back to the word of the day, anal retentive. I never used to do drawings, and I started about six years ago doing them, and the idea was my paintings are so uptight, let's have a practice that's much looser.
JFR: Is that possible? [laughter]
ALM: You look at them, they're not loose at all. Like the idea that that urine is messy, that's me getting wild.
JFR: I actually made a note to myself because it's interesting where there is messiness in your work, it is--
Adam Lee Miller: So controlled.
JFR: --achingly precise.
ALM: So controlled. But after doing drawings for a couple of years I finally figured out what they can teach me, and it's because of the lack of color, so now it has to be just with the pencil, and one color. Color is such a big part of the paintings, so the drawings are a way of not dealing with color, and dealing with how do I still present the idea? I like to think it's in a more simplistic way, but I don't think they're really any more simplistic.
JFR: And speaking of color, this one color—which is almost like a construction site safety orange—seems to recur a lot. Is that going back to your roots, or your experience doing construction, or ...?
ALM: You know, it's like psychoanalysis at this point, I just love that color so much, I can't get away from it. I really love it, but yes I'm sure it's been in my history a lot. It's funny I'll go back now and contradict myself—which I hope to do a lot of—but I guess I do think about being contemporary. Fluorescents now, it's funny because I've been doing them for a long time, “I was there first!” [laughter] But you know, all the gym shoes now ... before all that craze had happened, I just like putting that orange on the sides. It just really made that a much more contemporary painting right now, it's not our normal colors we put together, which is the same in my opinion with electronic music. It's not bass, and guitar, it's not the elements we're used to being combined. Without that orange it would've been very old fashioned, quiet painting...
JFR: That goes back to what you said at the outset about your choice of a color palette in terms of having that uneasy aspect.
ALM: So, there's something very calm about that piece, there's something I think somewhat ... I would love to do that painting really like that size now, or even bigger where it's life size so that when you stood in front of it, you were physically corralled. Because a lot of the work is about corralling, which comes back to the idea of choice, or no choice.
JFR: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
ALM: It just goes back to what is purpose? And choice? There's this fantastic book called Man's Search for Meaning, and it's by a concentration camp survivor. And you know, spoiler alert everybody, but the book basically says, "When I was in concentration camp I realized that I only had control of one thing, was how I reacted to the situation I was in." And I found that very profound, and so that idea of choice is the ultimate freedom, it's the only freedom that can ever be taken away from us.
A lot of the work with the corrals is just addressing that. You have no choice, you can't go around it, the gold at the top is supposed to kind of be like the urine cloud, but it's also a visual, you can't go to the top, you can't go over the fence, you can't go to the left, you can't go to the right. But at the same time, obviously I know it's a painting, it's not really there, so that there is a choice, you don't have to enter the painting. It's also flat, which pushes you back out of the painting.
And when I leave something loose, it seems so planned. Like, it just doesn't look, because that's not who I am.
So for instance that painting, which is very old, but I just brought that out to show a kind of history, but that big splatter behind there was the first time I did this covering up, "Oh there's nothing wrong here, we'll just hang this artwork over this." You know, that's extremely scary because I threw paint at it, and the painting was done, and it was either going to finish the painting, or ruin the painting. So ...
JFR: You're talking about the orange?
ALM: Yeah. So, I'd already painted that rain, rain, go away. And I put the ... I taped it off, and then threw that at it, and we were just like, "Oh boy I hope ..." And I had to tape everything off because it's supposed to be on the wall, not-
JFR: So, that's an instance where it is actually loose in the sense that you actually threw something at it. I imagine that in some of these others it is actually much more tightly controlled in terms of the looseness.
ALM: Well, what I do ... It got to the point where I got so scared to do these drips, and throw things, and everything that ... That I made a silk screen, so that I could do my messy drips, but then they're organized. So, it's pretty ridiculous.
JFR: You've mentioned Nicola several times, your partner in life, and in ...
JFR: --work, personally and professionally, the other half of ADULT., but you also work with her collaboratively as an artist. I asked at the outset about the relationship between your musical and visual pursuits. Can you talk about the relationship between your collaborative work, and your solo work as visual artists?
ALM: Well, we had a show at Simone DeSousa's called Discreet Vulgarities. We worked very separately, and then we had a few collaborative pieces, but when we were putting the show together we thought, "It's so stupid in a way that we're putting separate names on everything because every second I'm asking, Nicola what do you think of this color? Nicola, do you think this is the right size? Nicola?" And she's the same, so our opinions are so intertwined in each other's work because we're together all the time that I don't know that there's much of a divide between individual, and ...
JFR: How is it to work collaboratively with somebody who is also your life partner, and you collaborate with them not just in one aspect of your work, but in both aspects of your work. Isn't that all-consuming?
ALM: It is. I think all artists, all we want is to have a dialogue with other people who consider your work, and to have someone that knows it absolutely, it is special. Our new record that's going to come out in September—for the first time we decided to make 23 demos, and then we're going to pick 15 out of those, and flush them out, and then we're going to cut it down to 10 or 12. Normally we write just the right amount of songs, but it's been really interesting because we're with a new record label, and sending that material off to them is vulnerable.
JFR: And what made you decide to approach it that way this time if you've never done it that way before?
ALM: We wanted to make sure that … it's our seventh album, we don't want to repeat ourselves. So, we thought, if we change our modus operandi it's got to affect how the record will sound in the end. So by going to a cabin up north, by doing demos, which we've never done—we always just start a song, and we finish it. We hope that that process will make the new record have growth, and difference from the other records. Don't know yet.
Photos: Nicola Kuperus