Monday, April 14, 2008

Eye, Eye, Eye, Eye...

A self-portrait about balancing art and motherhood. In 1987 when I drew Self with Lipstick my children were still living at home and my primary subject was self-portraiture. This was partly for practical reasons because I was always an available model, but my self-portraits function as more than a rendering of my physiognomy. I look in the mirror to ground myself, and my self-portraits comprise an on-going spiritual, psychological and emotional diary. They are a record of my search for self. Self with Lipstick speaks about the challenge of being an artist with five small children. Clint Brown chose to include this drawing in his book, Drawing from Life and wrote:

Martha Miller’s Self-Portrait with Lipstick is a tongue in cheek interpretation of herself […] Her background shows that she is using the bathroom mirror, also an injection of humor, a play on the more traditional self-portraits of artists in their studios. Frustrated by the endless interruptions and demands of being both artist and mother, she inscribes at the bottom of the drawing, "Hey, I’m trying to draw, Jehovah’s witnesses knocking at the door, Lisbeth wanting me to draw ballerinas." In many ways, Miller’s drawing is an expression of a will to create in spite of the obstacles. It clearly emphasizes the internal reality more than the external, the way she looks.

Brown hits upon a theme that is present in my self-portraits and portraits, that of the internal reality. In making a portrait, I attempt to reveal how one’s outer appearance can tell much about the inner state of the individual. The four eyes and two sets of lips in Self with Lipstick describe how I felt torn between the roles of mother and artist.

Self with Lipstick, 1987
pastel and pencil on Rives BFK, 15" x 22"
collection of The Achenbach Prints and Drawings Collection, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA.

also posted here: a photo taken by my sister Susan of my drawing on exhibit @ The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in a Recent Aquisitions show there in 1990. I was so excited to see that it was hanging next to a drawing by Lucien Freud! (on the left)


Rob S. said...

I guess Lucien Freud is in good company, then!
What's so great and unique about your work is your constant change in approach in order to suit the sitter's persona in the moment - be the sitter yourself or someone else. This post and the previous one clearly show that.
And I think that since the eyes show human emotion so much more clearly than any other feature - the honesty with which you capture that feature may be too startling for those who would rather emotions be veiled and/or hidden. Of course, honesty is the best policy - especially in art!

martha miller said...

Hi Rob

You are kind - thankyou. I sometimes wonder if I am an "art brat" - unwilling to flex. It helps to hear that you observe constant change in my approach - this does indicate some flexibilty!
How do you handle commissions? Are they problematic? Are you given full reign?

Rob S. said...

There are times I've been given free rein, but would have preferred free reign!
Sorry - I just enjoyed the nature of your Freudian slip there.
Actually, Martha, I was a freelance illustrator for years in the book publishing industry, and now I am a full time illustrator in the stationery industry, so I have been art directed to within an inch of my life numerous times. You get used to it, but it's never enjoyable.
The few commissions I've done outside the illustration world have been either mutually directed or done under my own auspices. The painting
Reasons For Drowning
is a co-directed piece, for instance.

martha miller said...

so do you have a realm of art making that you keep absolutely separate from your bread and butter art? if so , does doing the illustrations feed that realm, or deplete it? i designed a line of dolls and sewed for a living for many years and did not feel like i had much energy left to do my ART. (i didn't think of the dolls as my art,but looking back now, they sure were. i burned out doing the production and sewing).
but at least the dolls were very different from my art so they were easy to keep in a separate compartment in my head.

Rob S. said...

Well, I don't want to compromise my day job by commenting too specifically on this (if and when I see you next, perhaps we can discuss this further). I will say that it is difficult to find the balance between creative energy spent upon my 9 to 5 and having the reserves for the work that I truly love. However, I am dedicated to the fact that someday I will achieve that balance.

martha miller said...

life is long!

Dean Grey said...


What a wonderful self-portait!

Being split in two when you just want to be one is totally relatable.

How exciting that this piece was featured in a book too!

Thanks for sharing this!