Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art



greg-motelGreg Miller is a modern-day pop artist determined to document the disappearing cultural landscape of America. Through his vision, the elusive eye of a pinup and the reassuring wink of an alienated hero are preserved. He prevents the weathered words of old roadside billboards from continued fading. Nostalgic portraits of true romance and simple beauty are given eternal emotion. Image meets language in Miller’s art as though John Steinbeck and Ansel Adams were conjoined twins. Or, as Miller says more succinctly, “They left me behind to tell the story. Whoever THEY are. My paintings are edgy with sexy smeared all over them.”

Miller’s Venice Beach, California, studio has the look and feel of a muscle car garage. The ceiling is so high it’s barely visible. His canvases are large, too. He works on a dozen of them at a time. Vintage collectibles including pulp fiction books, Playboy magazines and boxes full of thrift store supplies are strewn about. Miller has mental numbers associated with them all, and like a sandwich line at an obscure deli, they’ll get glued to a canvas or collaged on a sculpture when the ingredients are needed. “I like the idea of using materials that aren’t necessarily associated with art,” he explains. A big industrial door swings from his studio to an outside work area where detached pages from literary classics give off an odor you’d only find in a musty library. “The air stains the paper like tobacco. I guess you could say I’m an art farmer,” he jokes. A life-sized example of his rebinding work stands nearby – a fiberglass horse named “Buck” covered with pages from at least fifty different western paperbacks.

greg-openHis art speaks an invented language where old, pure dialect becomes new, poignant poetry. Significant moments are frozen with found objects to transcend time. For instance, he attached sections of his dad’s World War II army tent to an immense painting of a well-known vintage soda pop logo. He incorporated actual pages from the Warren Commission Report, old shotgun rifles and 1950’s memorabilia in a 25 painting exhibition about JFK. The work is as provocative as it is prolific. He teases his canvases with sexual tension, including: a life-size sculpture of Marilyn Monroe’s bed complete with rumpled sheets, a rustic Route 66 sign juxtaposed with lesbians kissing and a sexy lady’s longing look next to a beat-up matchbook cover that says “Sure Thing.” With a smirk he says, “I’m much more into the sultry women of film noir, than a bowl of fruit or a spiritual tree.”

The act of creation is an insanely physical process for Greg Miller. He’s a reductionist with an adage problem. He’ll lay down magazine pages on a canvas, cover it with coats of white, and then airbrush or paint an image on top of it. Next, he’ll sand back into the artwork bringing out imagery and type, before globbing on even more paint. Finally, when the mixed-media conglomeration is complete, he’ll coat the whole thing in surfboard resin. “I add the resin for three reasons,” he explains. “It allows me to abstract ‘pop art,’ it’s a West Coast material and it’s a covering agent that fossilizes the work.”

greg-hoseHis innovations go beyond painting, collage and sculpture; Miller also has his hooks in Hollywood. He’s made three short films to show alongside his art. “Darth Days” tells the tale of modern day Darth Vader. “Star Wars” is over and Darth (played by Miller) is living in Los Angeles. He is a regular looking guy except for the fact that he’s walking around with a black mask on his face. Hardships mount and he can’t get a job in this land of stereotypes and profiling. In another movie called “The Kidnapping,” Robert Wagner plays a famous, hotshot painter who is kidnapped by three jealous artists. The criminals’ plan is foiled because nobody wants the artist back, so they are forced to let him go. Miller’s final short, “Go Fish,” featured eight-foot tall goldfish swimming around digital fish tanks viewed on iPods. The movie previewed as part of an installation inside a shipping container complete with sand at DiVA during Art Basel in Miami.

Speaking of life in a fishbowl, nothing makes Miller more claustrophobic than reading current art media. “More French Impressionists,” he says shaking his head. “It’s like flipping to the sports section and finding out Babe Ruth hit another homerun and Ty Cobb is going to the All-Star game. How bout covering real artists working today?” Artistic movements surrounded, but never really made room for Miller. “I’ve always been just off the mark,” he says sarcastically. “I’m too old to run with Shepard Fairey, but too young for Ed Ruscha’s crowd… so I’m stuck in the middle. It’s like standup comedy. I was too young for the beatniks and the Vietnam protests in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but too old for the punk rockers in the ‘90’s and street artists of today. When I came of age in the ‘70’s, the world was goofball crazy, the economy was terrible and we had to wait in line to get gas.”

greg-luckyGreg Miller was blessed with fountain-of-youth genes – a good-looking guy in his fifties with a full compliment of hair who could easily pass for 32. He is a 4th generation Californian, born in 1951 to an old ranching family. Mom told him wild stories about the good ole days out West. She bonded with her son by painting, drawing and making wax sculptures. Greg’s dad moved to L.A. to be a movie star after the Great Depression, but the war dashed his dreams. He watched every single one of his friends die in the South Pacific. “I always respected and appreciated what my dad went through,” Greg says. “He gave up everything to raise his family. So, whatever my dad wanted me to do, I’d do. ‘Go out in the yard and dig a couple holes!’ he’d shout. ‘Okay, no problem…’” But it was the business trips he took with his dad along the central coast that he enjoyed the most. The diverse language and pop imagery of crumbling roadside billboards dotting the landscape became very influential to his work today.

As a child, Greg split his time between the banks of the American River and the slopes of the northern Sierra. “I sorta hit the last of the Mark Twain/Huckleberry Finn era,” Greg reflects. “Kids didn’t have to wear helmets. You could play in the river and get dirt under your feet.” Athleticism raced through his blood as fast as he navigated a ski hill. He swam and played football, too, but like a clogged artery, a major obstacle always forced him to take another direction. “I was good, but not really great at anything,” he says. “It’s the story of my life.” Case in point, the chapter on swimming. Greg swam for legendary coach Sherm Chavoor in Sacramento. So did Mark Spitz. “There’s Spitz and then there’s the rest of us,” Greg says heckling himself. “So I’m in the detached lane swimming my ass off just to make sure Mark Spitz’s Speedo gets its workout.” While Spitz dominated the 1972 Olympic Games winning six gold medals, he also made it impossible for young Greg Miller to ever get a flippin’ ribbon in junior swimming. “The point is, I learned how to persevere and work real hard,” he says hanky in hand. “In the end, those were the best things for my art career.”

greg-portraitThe light rhythms of 1950’s jazz became his first creative influence, along with the paralleled language and poetry that danced with it. A decade later, he got lost in the music scene of San Francisco experiencing Hendrix, The Doors and Joplin firsthand at the Fillmore and in the Mission. He also resonated with colorful images and phrases like “Stop the War” from propaganda posters produced in the Haight-Ashbury. Simple things in life mattered, too. A favorite pastime for Greg and his grandmother was visiting abandoned ghost towns. The insides of decrepit building were wallpapered with yellowed book pages, catalogues and other material. Those images were the genesis of his curiosity with collage. The family didn’t have money to buy a bunch of fresh canvases, so Greg made his own by ripping up discarded books and gluing them to Life magazine pages. Then he’d sand the surface and paint on it. He carved up Coke bottles and painted on them, too, and even made whole cities out of cardboard shoeboxes in his bedroom. “You couldn’t go to Toys ‘R Us and get everything all made for you. You had to do it yourself as a kid, and I liked that idea,” he says.

In high school, Greg entered his art in small fairs along the Delta, and would “win”… ‘Honorable Mention’ of course. The meandering successes left him with a bit of an identity crisis: Was he a jock? Was he an artist? Should his right side beat up his left? Many of his peers took the straight and successful road to business school, but Greg wound up graduating with a degree in confusion. Higher education was father mandated. “It was death or college,” Greg says. With little wiggle room in the option department, he packed his bags for the University of Nevada at Reno. “It was 1969, and if you wore your hair long, you got your ass kicked by the cowboys,” Miller says with a furled brow. “Seriously!” Staying the hell out of Reno was priority number one, skiing was number two and school was way down the list somewhere. The nearby lodges of Squaw Valley gained fame in 1960 after the Americans beat the Russians in the Winter Olympics. The tourists left, but the best skiers in the world stayed behind. Greg watched mogul-crushing, 50-foot cliff jumping barbarians like Gary Keene and the Beck brothers shred Squaw. Needless to say, the slopes were wide open; Greg’s textbooks were not. So the school booted his X-Games ass out of town long before the cowboys could.

greg-cardBecoming a professional artist was not even a blip on Greg’s radar at the time. His creative juices had, however, squeezed a good amount of cash out of the Sierra. He designed cool t-shirts of his buddies “in action” for a ski company, who in turn paid Greg in skis. The savvy salesman then turned around and sold the merchandise for money. Through a series of accidents and luck, he used those profits wisely by buying an old bank building in downtown Sacramento. He intended to use it as a loft in the future once he figured out his life’s direction. That investment would come in more than handy later.

First, the fear of Dad turned Greg into a San Jose State Spartan. And, like an old Greek warrior, he learned to shield off self-doubt and turned a paintbrush into a career-advancing weapon. The art department was solid at SJSU, and kicking math and science to the curb was fine by Greg. His professors were of the Beat generation, and encouraged Greg’s interest in literature as art. He harkened back to the prose of the 1950’s and those ghost town walls, and found his “voice” as a storyteller by putting words on top of images in his paintings. Socially, Greg was in his prime, too, and ready to take up a cause. The liberation bell began tolling right on time, but he had no idea what sound it was making. “Yeah, right when I’m ready to carry a banner and march the streets, here comes the feminist movement,” Greg says as though he’d just smelled his own hat head. “I thought it was a venereal disease. Feminism – I mean, what was it? Everybody’s all angry at the white man. I’m just going, ‘What the hell?’”

greg-beforeInstead of burning bras, he tightened his belt and plowed through art school. After earning his undergraduate degree, he ping-ponged from master’s programs at Art Institute of San Francisco and UCLA, before completing his graduate studies back at San Jose State. The creative climate was very interesting during the mid-to-late 1970’s. The Bay Area Figuratists were producing great work, but with little fanfare – plus there were just five of them. The art market was in the tank. Warhol and Rauschenberg were the only ones selling. “Painting just went totally dead,” Greg adds. “Everybody was doing Xerox stuff and performance art.” As far as making money was concerned – “Forget about it!” Greg bellows. “I mean, here I was, a kid that went to a school that turned out master’s degrees at like 80 a year. There’s no discussion about business or survival. You learn to make something of your own, and then it’s like, ‘Okay great. See you later. Nice job.’”

The “real world” proved to be a reality check for Greg Miller. “I was living in the worst warehouse space in San Jose you’ve ever seen,” he says. “On the left side of it was a weird church with a blind guy and a dog playing out in front. On the right side was this bar with young Mexican men dressed as women soliciting themselves. I’m in the middle of all this in a little studio and I felt isolated from the world. But I couldn’t complain about it, because I didn’t want to sound like a little weenie.” To make ends meet he drove a truck for Bank of America delivering inner-branch mail from 5:00-7:00 in the morning and 4:00-6:00 at night. The rest of the day he painted. Galleries only represented those dead and gone, so Miller’s art hung in alternative spaces and sold for gumball machine prices.


“Just like in football,” Miller waxes poetically, “it’s the third quarter, you’re down four touchdowns and it’s raining. You’ve got this pain shooting up your back, but you’ve got to stick in there the whole time. It was the same scenario with my art. So I gave myself a little pep talk… ‘I want to paint. I’m passionate about it. I’m going to stay with it no matter what.’” So Miller dug in his cleats, buckled his chinstrap and tried to get a teaching job, but found “that’s like trying to get a date with Gisele,” he says. “It’s simply not going to happen.” So broke as a joke, yet undeterred, he moved to Southern California and applied for a job at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Southern California. Somehow he convinced Paul Schimmel (now Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) to hire him. Miller became the graphic designer for the trendy, young museum flying to New York regularly to meet with artists and create catalogues and posters. He met Andy Warhol and saw first hand that one man could do movies, a magazine and have a full compliment of assistants, all while orchestrating a great art career. From the business side of things, he’d just popped his cherry to art’s biggest pimp.

greg-grasp-vertMiller’s work in Newport Beach got him that date with Gisele, by the way, plus a kiss, as he became the tenured head of the graphic design department at Art Institute in Laguna Beach. He oversaw the transition from hand to computer-generated design at the school and made his kids competitive in the field. But after five years, the caviar taste of academia turned to boxed cod and he decided to throw it back. “We had to hold a meeting to decide when we were going to hold a meeting,” he says. “I just wanted to paint.” And by 1992, he could afford to do so. He’d matured into his signature style of vintage imagery collaged with words and coated in resin, started getting shows and was selling. Miller rented a loft near Al’s Garage, the punk rock bar in the middle of L.A.’s musical revolution. Again, Miller was surrounded by a cutting-edge culture, but he didn’t chug beers with The Offspring or go anti-authoritarian with Raymond Pettibon. Instead, Miller had been wisely upgrading his investment in that old Sacramento bank building that his dad talked him into buying years ago. He bought and sold properties until he could afford an old bungalow in Venice Beach. With the left over money he brought in Tim McCarthy, an architect who once worked with Frank Gehry, to modernize the place. The home is now a 7,000-square-foot cross between a fort and a boat – complete with a series of narrow indoor/outdoor walkways and floors made from submarine decking.

greg-vert-girlGreg Miller has matured with his art. Like uncorking a treasured bottle of red, the taste of success is made sweeter by appreciation of the experience. Miller is a very prolific painter and can’t paint fast enough to supply the demand these days. He had 17 exhibitions in 2008, has commissions coming in one after the other and all his available inventory is spoken for. Celebrities like Sharon Stone, Jessica Alba and Marg Helgenberger collect his work, and Miller recently completed pieces for Playboy Enterprise’s corporate offices. Right now, he is developing new concept exhibitions that delve deeper into America’s history including an 18-foot painting of the legendary Hollywood sign that will be exhibited this March in Los Angeles. He’s already done a 25-foot canvas of Custer’s Last Stand and tackled the civil right’s movement. Miller is also working on a comic book, complete with contemporary and sexy illustrations that he hopes to make into a “Sin City”-like movie. “I’ve got a lot of stories left to tell and a lot of stuff to paint. I don’t even know if I’ll get it done in my time here,” he admits. “It’s never been about being famous or rich for me. When it’s all said and done, I want to have made a body of paintings that will have turned people on, so they can see what I’ve done and say, ‘He came to play.’”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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