Liz Miller creates installations that explore the beauty in devastation

Liz Miller is a Minnesota-based artist who describes herself thusly: “I’m an artist who is currently fascinated with weapons, invasive species, and pattern/ornament/decoration. My installations reference beauty and violence.”

She says she fell into site-specific work by accident. While attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities she was working with different materials and the work became unwieldy, so she started playing with the materials on the wall of her studio. From this experimentation she was invited to do an installation and fell in love with the idea of people actually being able to walk into her art. She now does large-scale site-specific installations.

“This idea of a collage on the wall – that’s kind of fascinating,” she says, though her work has since expanded from the wall to inhabit whole rooms. “[My work] started out as flat wall-based installation[s], then progressed to be more sculptural. Now many works don’t even touch the wall.”

While each of her works takes on a different theme or subject, there is a general over-arching examination going on among them. “It started with an interest in systems, and [wondering] what happens when systems fail…what happens when something is amiss?”

What appear to be beautiful, brightly-colored paper cut-out collages – like a child’s paper doll chain writ large and made abstract – conceal a weightier significance, a system of symbolic codes in repetition that take a bit of deciphering on the part of the viewer to fully comprehend. They’re also mostly made out of materials like plastic or felt; in fact, only recently did Miller create a piece made entirely out of paper. Perception is indeed not reality.

“Storms and radar imagery, invasive species…I’m interested in things that are sort of beautiful and devastating at the same time,” Miller says. “[You find] weapons across all cultures and countries, and they are often sort of aestheticized. I create these abstract fictions from different sources; [there is] a lot of camouflaging of the source through mirroring and blending so you can’t really tell.”

She is interested in using real world references to create works that are caught in the specific space, and finds the visual tension exciting.

Because of her choice of imagery – weaponry, invasive species – many might argue that Miller is making some sort of provocative political statement in her work, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think I’m making a direct statement with the weaponry,” she says. “It’s more about the complexity of perception and how easy it is to manipulate perception. [The installations] look really organic but are made with synthetic sources, much like advertising images. We’re manipulated through visual images all the time.”

She likes it when people spend time with her work and begin seeing the different layers to it. “A lot of times people will look at it and see one layer of it, but as they spend more time with it hopefully they see these other layers that look really benign and really organic at first and then [lead] to something sinister underneath.”

She also likes for people to become immersed in her work, to be attracted to how precise, sequential, and harmonious it is, but also to feel a little uncomfortable once they’re actually in it. “People have said, ‘It felt pretty but I don’t know, there’s something about it.’ I say, ‘That’s okay, that’s good, I want it to be a little unsettling.”

Her work explores the interconnectedness and complexities of all of these different systems – technology, the environment – and how sort of conjoined all of these things are. She describes it as “a conceptual interest that shapes the visual side of it and the visual side becomes a fiction; how the viewer sees it depends on how much time [they spend with it].”

A recent installation, currently on display at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, is called Egregious Feng Shui. This is another reference to weaponry, this time with a visual repetition of brass knuckles. The title, much like the titles of most of her works, is tongue-in-cheek. “Humor is part of my work,” Miller says. “I have had so many conversations with people [who say], ‘Your work is so beautiful, it’s so decorative,’ and they’re looking at a series of guns, and some are kind of obvious. Someone once even referred to me as a decorator! I found that really funny. So I thought it would be really funny to say, ‘Okay, I’m a decorator and I’m going to decorate this room in brass knuckles.’ Because, yeah, I do want to aestheticize these things because they are beautiful!”

Miller has started teaching installation art at Minnesota State University where she has taught drawing for nine years. She explains, “‘Installation art’ is still a really broad term. Every installation artist approach things differently. One thing that connects them is that interest in site, in doing something that’s really connected to a site – that idea that the work somehow speaks to the space and transforms the space.”

The audience experience is also a source of fascination, and markedly different from the way a person experiences a painting. “I’m interested in how the viewer moves through the space and what the relationship to the viewer is; the choreography of the piece. That focus on how the viewer interacts with the work is an important part of installation.”

As an installation artist, Miller’s work is temporary by design and necessity, and that’s part of what she enjoys about it. “I like the idea of the temporality of installation. A lot of people don’t like that but I do. If you’re going work in installation that temporality is a thing you have to accept.”