At Praxis Fiber Workshop we have a bit of a meta moment, as Erin R. Miller's artwork gets unpacked. You see, Miller's solo exhibition, Return to Sender, is a study of packing peanuts, shredded paper and bubble wrap recreated in textiles.
The inception for this show did not unfold as one might have expected. Miller's parents had divorced when she was young. Due to varying circumstances her father lost their house shortly thereafter, and with it she lost everything from her childhood. Years later, the artist had seen a cup on eBay similar to one that she favored as a child, and so she ordered it.
"When it got to me there was no packaging material and the cup was totally demolished. It was like dust by the time I received it," Miller recounts. "I was so upset that there was no packing material in there. It's wasn't even that I was upset that the cup was broken; it was that there was no bubble wrap."
Miller realized she had been emoting over the bubble wrap so much that the cup ceased to be such an important acquisition. The seed was planted and germinated. "I always think about how important that bubble wrap was to me in that moment, and all of these other materials that I'm close to now, and how I emotionally related to those things [that were] similar."
What could be a banal exhibition about a banal subject is anything but. The majority of Miller's tapestries and fleeces are 60 inches wide and 80 inches tall.
Miller, who just finished her MFA thesis in fibers at Eastern Michigan University, has a reputation for diving deep into her research. The planning involved is formidable to say the least. Miller may spend between 45 and 50 hours on a given artwork, from raw source materials, such as a photograph, to the finished product. It also depends on how the final textiles are manufactured. Some of the pieces she has printed at Walmart to get the crisp image onto the textile. "Initially, it was a totally filthy concept to me, but with the technical materials I'm working with, it's necessary," Miller says. The artist starts with one single tile; then she eliminates and reinserts information purposefully so that the original tile is not apparent in the repetition and the results are astonishing. "Fleece Packing Peanuts" and "Fleece Cardboard" are so painstakingly created that it is hard to tell where the pattern originates or ends. We really feel as if we are looking into a huge box of packing peanuts or oil-stained cardboard.
The tactile white pieces along the gallery's eastern wall, titled "Used Cardboard I" and "Used Cardboard II: coffee mug," had been woven on a digital hand loom. The indentations tell a convincing story of the cardboard's life. The same sort of planning and programming happens with these textiles; however, instead of outsourcing, Miller employs a technique called double weaving. Using this method, she weaves two pieces of cloth at the same time. She also uses wet felting and needle felting to create a relief. The piece titled "Used Bubble Wrap" is especially satisfying if you like popping the real deal.
As we close in on the heavy cotton tapestry titled "Packing Peanuts Upset," the image deconstructs into an almost abstract vision. We're reminded of a Chuck Close painting or Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" with its synergy. Backing up, the parts create a photographic image that is quite lovely.
The stand-alone piece in Return to Sender, and we do mean that literally, is one splendid, hand-felted Merino wool titled "Packing Peanut." Iconic to its squishy core and displayed on a plexiglass cube atop a white pedestal, this life-sized sculptural object packs all the grandeur of the larger wall works. Miller had created roughly fifty of these little gems, but the rest are on display in exhibitions elsewhere. We are left with only our imagination on how it would feel to dive both hands into a box of them.
Return to Sender remains on view at Praxis Fiber Workshop through Sept. 30.