Dan Miller Puts the Hidden Side of Depression on View at Waterloo Arts
“Depression is not always uncontrollable crying. …Depression is being given a year to get ready for an exhibition, an exhibition about depression, that is instead spent avoiding emails, wasting hours staring at blank pages and disappointment.” In the artist statement for this exhibition, Dan Miller bares it all – just as he does on the walls of Waterloo Arts for “Some Disassembly Required”, a pop-up show organized by Maria Neil Art Project.
Miller suffers from Bipolar 2 Disorder and Chronic Depression, and this highly narrative exhibition chronicles some of his recent struggles – including a rough divorce, losing a grandparent, and two nearly fatal motorcycle accidents.
Miller has an illustrative style of painting, reminiscent of children’s book illustrations – however, his tight but shakey strokes are anything but childish – there are some very adult scenes in this show: Blood on the pavement, a soiled hospital bed, gravestones, a twisted crashed motorcycle, suicidal thoughts, etc. Despite the heavy subject matter, Miller’s use of color is oddly charming – pastel pinks, greens, and blues – a seemingly uplifting palette, yet each scene is punctuated with a dripping black cloud.
Miller admits that the clouds are a bit “on the nose”, and I have to agree. It feels like some of the clouds were placed on the individual paintings as a unifying afterthought – but in others, like PTSD (above), the clouds do work. He also painted large clouds on the walls of the gallery – hanging in between the paintings like sentinels of sadness.
Paintings like I’ll Get to It Tomorrow and Depression Nest show a very dark side of mental illness, one that often goes unseen. Miller explains what it’s like to be trapped in a depressive episode: “Waking up at noon telling yourself the day is over and that you’ll get up early tomorrow and start. That depression can make you feel as if you are a passive member of the world, just going through the motions, killing time until you can go back to sleep, a poorly programed automaton just projecting an approximation of happiness. A human shaped depression machine.” In the large blue horizontal expanse of Depression Net, Miller scrawled “Just killing time until I can go back” – his nest of a bed is covered with piles and piles of clothes. Miller presents the sad reality of what it feels like when you can’t find the strength to face the world.
Putting the hidden side of depression on view must have taken an incredible amount of courage on the artist’s part. I too suffer from depression, and fully recognize myself in many of these paintings – ignoring emails, procrastination to the point of complete immobility, and the vicious cycle that can ensue. It’s not pretty, and frankly it’s embarrassing – society still tends to frown on such behavior, and by putting these dark secrets on view, Miller is doing his part to destigmatize mental illness, which I applaud.
And while I absolutely loved this show, it was not fun to see it. In fact, I felt uneasy as I walked around the room, but I was fairly certain this was intentional. The thirteen paintings on view are all modestly sized, and felt far too small for the large room. The large clouds painted on the walls started to seem like placeholders for paintings that never happened – which is not a great feeling. As Miller explains: “The structure of this exhibition is as much a part of the narrative as the works themselves. The negative space and emptiness is a testament to both what could have been and the painful isolation of depression.” It does feel empty, and yet each small painting packs a serious punch. Looking at Miller’s paintings is a bit like taking a hard look in the mirror at myself, and that’s tough. It’s not fun to confront your demons – only some seriously powerful art could make that happen, and Miller’s work is definitely that powerful.
Don’t miss the chance to hear Dan Miller speak about this very personal exhibition on Wednesday, September 11th at 6:00pm – the talk will begin at around 6:45. Light refreshments will be served. Info here.
Dan Miller Some Disassembly Required, Presented by Maria Neil Art Project
Through Sept. 21 at Waterloo Arts, 15605 Waterloo Rd.