Miller Horns at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve
Miller Horns, who was born in 1948 and so came of age between the late 1960s and early 1970s, was mainly a printmaker. But he was a print maker excited by new forms and techniques available in that field, at that revolutionary time. Horns began looking for fresh means of expression just when electrostatic copy machines became widely available for public use, typically at a nickel or a dime per copy (though much more cheaply in an office or university environment).
Multiples were nothing new, but Xeroxes were, anchoring the Pop imagistic revolution through affordable, accessible, easy to operate machines. Starting with photographs, Horns began to make generations of copies, sometimes cropping and enlarging. Working into these iterations with color, he used the available standard letter and legal size paper options to build larger works. Those sectional, assemble-able prints, which could be carried anywhere easily by hand, were often also laminated – another publicly available technology. He liked to think of them as maps; perhaps for him they were maps to the future.
He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he earned his BFA, but he became known for works that were very much part of the transgressive, populist, street-level spirit of the era. It was art that grabbed its tools from a cultural kit that valued and made possible things like speed, electricity, and a uniquely late-twentieth-century attitude towards individual images; however many words a picture may be worth, an image is mainly valuable as a step, the first of a potentially endless series. The fact that Horns was an African American artist who had been a teenager and young adult as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum–at a time when so much in the American identity altered and so many promises were made and broken–made for a sense of shifting foundations in his work. Unstable social, political, and aesthetic conditions were refracted in Horns’ layered subject matter and changeable dimensions.
Horns’ works currently on view at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in University Circle through April, 2017 include studies for major works, like his murals and large scale installations at area hospitals and libraries, as well as more private images of family members.
The exhibit also includes documentation of Horns’ sixteen year-long battle to design, oversee, and obtain funding for the construction of a memorial commemorating the Matthews Hotel in Akron, demolished in 1982. Thanks to Horns, this hotel where Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and many other jazz greats stayed from the 1930s-1950s when they played in northern Ohio (at a time when black guests were banned from most American hotels) was dedicated by Akron’s mayor in 2016–four years after the artist’s death.
A three by four foot taped-together electrostatic print titled “Pulling the Proof” is an example of a different side of Horns’ oeuvre. The piece is configured as a giant Etch-A-Sketch toy and shows a single-line drawing of Miller working on a giant collage, spread over the bed of a printing press. All of this is rendered in a standard Etch-A-Sketch light gray, but in the background a window opens onto a full-color world of trees and sky. A spoof-like commentary on the labors of art and the limits of technique, Horns could be witty as well as wise.
Horns, who was born in 1948 in Birmingham Alabama, died in 2012 after living in Akron most of his life. Perhaps because his work is prominently on display at the Akron Art Museum he has been better known in that city than in Cleveland, despite having earned his BFA at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The current show makes it clear that he should be much better known in both cities, and indeed elsewhere. During his lifetime Horns’ work was recognized by The American Academy in Rome, which awarded him the Rome Prize in 1989, and in 2000 when he was a Fellow in the Visual Arts at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. As the AAWR approaches its twenty-first anniversary of recruiting, archiving, and displaying prominent visual artists based in northern Ohio, exhibits like this one, curated by the Archives’ Executive Director Mindy Tousley, demonstrate the need for historical organizations and public galleries whose mission is to acquaint Ohioans with our rich, often neglected art heritage.