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Returning to the painting of Sheila Miles

In Larissa MacFarquhar’s recent profile of Quentin Tarantino in The New Yorker, the film director details his prolific consumption of movies. After a day behind the camera, he’ll hunker down in front of the screen for a fistful of movies. Tarantino’s taste in movies is all over the map, but he does have a special fondness for what he calls “hangout” movies, ones you want to watch over and over again. He urges all moviegoers to do as he does—go to a movie the first time “just to get the plot out of the way,” then go again, and again, just to spend time with the characters.

At the recent opening reception for painter Sheila Miles’ exhibition, In the Neighborhood: Recent Works by Sheila Miles, the Art Museum of Missoula was delightfully abuzz with gallery gazers trying to figure out what’s going on inside those houses in the paintings. If you were among the near-record-breaking crowd in the gallery that night, I have a suggestion. Now that you have the plot out of the way, go again. I’ve been four times.

At mid-career, Sheila Miles has entered the canon, if you will, of Montana artists. She’s well known and respected for being a hard worker, a painters’ painter, a prolific artist who has shown her work in over 300 exhibitions. But if you take it for granted that you know Sheila Miles’ work from the past, you are in for a remarkable visit. An undeniable maturation has taken place, resulting in Miles’ now accomplishing, with a nuance of thin, subdued, meandering scribble, what she once expressed in bolder and less subtle forms. The paintings in the exhibition were all produced over the past year, a year marked for the artist by a personal narrative of a chronic, mystifying illness—of coping with life. Knowing this, we may—like voyeurs—gaze at the faceless figures inside the line-drawing houses, trying to decipher what the museum’s curator Steve Glueckert calls Miles’ “heavy symbology.” While some of the enclosed vignettes Miles has painted are admittedly autobiographical, many of the plots are as generic as the nonexistent faces of the men and women clumsily yet gracefully floating, coupling, sparring, watching the tube, reclining in their houses. Either way, Miles says she works in the “automatic painting” tradition of the Surrealists, with no preconceived notions of what’s to come when she starts to paint.

No preconceived notion, perhaps, but every element bares the mark of informed skill. This is a painter whose imaginative subconscious and extensive formal training are on par with each other in their mastery. Miles flatly layers houses, people, trees and other ephemera of narrative upon backgrounds of colorist abstraction. The backgrounds, what lies beneath the apparent plot, bring Mark Rothko to my eyes’ mind. In So Near, So Far and In the Neighborhood I, soft strokes of spare, sumptuous color form backgrounds that would comprise a successful body of work on their own, even if you extracted the narrative-evoking imagery. That could be a quietly beautiful experience. But to do so to In the Neighborhood I would be to miss the lyrical movement of painted lines that forms a suggestion of a tree here, or the languid man stuck in the middle of three houses, bookended by the other two abodes, each one literally filled with a vibrant, available woman. To go fishing for the narrative is irresistible.

Two Blues dangles a compelling story line. The story you read may not be the one I read, or the one the artist rendered with her subconscious as her muse. An open-ended synopsis is the artist’s encouragement that the viewer draw his or her own story line. The line I drew resembled the flat, anonymous figures of Milton Avery layered with a discomfit of ennui, unbridled exuberance, and scribbles that at times form biomorphic abstractions, at other times chimney smoke. These lyrical, looping, ribbon-like lines, whether painted or incised onto the surface, are fanciful, but of portent. They are Arshile Gorky gone literal.

Miles gently pulls out all the stops for In the Neighborhood II, a veritable cavalcade of goings-on. Nine houses are arranged on three levels, Miles’ flattened-out perspective giving the sense of an ant farm, its orientation working both vertically and horizontally. Paths connecting houses recur in this body of work. They might be tunnels, connecting houses inhabited by people going about their own business. In some of the homes it is a lonely business; in others, it is the business of togetherness. For all, there are the connecting paths, tunnels, or, for curator Glueckert, umbilical cords, of which they may or may not avail themselves.

The artist has said, “As soon as I know what the painting means I want to move on.” If you haven’t visited In the Neighborhood, go—just to get the plot out of the way. Then go again to spend more time with the characters, or to appreciate some of the most mature, poetic painting of Sheila Miles’ career.

In the Neighborhood is up through Jan. 10 at the Art Museum of Missoula, 335 N. Pattee.

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