Chris Miles: The Object Looks Back

1 Installation view, UC Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies Gallery, 2018.

As you look at Christopher Miles’ work, it seems to shift between fantasy and reality, between conceptual zones and categories. It poses the children’s riddle: animal, vegetable, or mineral? These fantastical sculptural arrangements are rooted in the borderlands between diverse worlds—they are composite structures: landscapes, buildings, creatures, rocks, bodies of water. The work is oddly transformative, opening the viewer’s mind to concepts referring to things and states that can be extracted from a mobile reality. What makes this a mobile reality is the intensely sculptural nature of the work—you have to walk completely around it to see every facet. Passing through static to changing states, each bit of surface is activated. One element seems to cause others in a kind of domino effect; there’s no fixity of point of view. Miles gives no hints as to where to stand, how closely to look—the viewer is on their own, peering into holes, cavities, lost in the floods of intense color.

Commanding a Space

The work is aggressive. It’s an active presence commanding the space it occupies and seeming to stare back at its viewers. In Miles’ recent show at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies Gallery, he exhibited nine of these formidable structures sited dramatically in the space. Each object was placed on a wood pedestal made specifically for those pieces. The pedestals were fabricated with lap joints that spiral around their periphery; fusing the white-cube-work-table aesthetic with the idea that the sculptures are meant to be walked around. The sculptures present a system of elementary properties; growing, hardening, softening, curving, straightening, compressing. They are animate and inanimate.

2 Installation view, UC Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies Gallery, 2018.

What Miles achieves in this process is a multiplication of space—the pieces hatch out limbs, appendages, and branches in such profusion that inside and outside surfaces become contiguous. This requires considerable compositional acumen because what Miles is doing is not just arrangement but accumulation, along with varying the perspective and continually changing the pace of viewing. Each structure is a web of seamless movement filled with wave forms, currents, lines of flow, and patterns of ripples. His work presents surfaces that shift and transform, some being visible on the outside and others visible where the inside turns itself outward. The work has a great deal to do with viewing speed as every view overlaps another, each section coming into focus and then vanishing. Like a movie, each moment is full and in motion. Chris Miles, like nature, abhors a vacuum. At no point does the work slow down; each vista is continually changing. He goes in for more and more detail yet nothing becomes blurred or vague.

Raw and Spontaneous Fabrication

The most fundamental contradiction in the work is the technical precision its fabrication demands. His work appears to be raw and spontaneous, but, in terms of process, it’s highly rational and based on a considerable amount of planning. A lot of his studio time goes into thinking of what conditions are necessary to make the work or what tools he needs to create to do something in particular. This deliberate preparation facilitates forming in a way that frees Miles to be raw and unconstrained. The work is the consequence of numerous intersections: the nature of clay and glaze; the structural demands made of his materials; and the necessity of planning for the shifts, movement, and shrinkage caused by high firing, all in combination with Miles’ attempt to work as spontaneously as possible. The way he fabricates his intricately detailed pieces entails taking away as much material as possible in the form of holes, piercings, and divisions, but leaving enough so that the piece has sufficient structure to remain standing. The numerous resulting peepholes establish an intimate connection with the viewer, drawing them in and requiring close examination and shifting points of view around the form.

3 Untitled (In Form Series Number 4, Ganesha/Hugo/Diver Down), 34 in. (86 cm) in height, glazed semi-vitreous ceramic, fired in oxidation to cone 10, 2018.

4 Detail of Untitled (In Form Series Number 4, Ganesha/Hugo/Diver Down).

5 Untitled (In Form Series Number 3, Vincent Price Oppenheimer Mullican revisited), 32 in. (81 cm) in height, semi-vitreous ceramic, glaze, fired to cone 10 in oxidation, 2018.

6 Untitled (In Form Series Number 3, Vincent Price Oppenheimer Mullican revisited) alternate view, 32 in. (81 cm) in height, semi-vitreous ceramic, glaze, fired to cone 10 in oxidation, 2018.

Miles combines several forming methods in a single piece, using nearly dry materials along with slab-built and coiled clay. Ultimately, his use of glaze glues and cements everything together. The work is basically a series of interlocking collections of clay, stacks of components held together with glaze. Miles has become something of a glaze wizard—he formulates all of the glazes, which are literally flooded onto the surfaces inside and out. Maintaining a contrast between the interior and exterior surfaces is crucial to him as he sees these contrasts as analogous to the human body and organic forms, dry on the outside, wet on the inside. He combines fluid and stiffer glazes for matte or shiny surfaces and layers them so that they are reactive. Because the pieces are relatively large, Miles has developed a system that involves yoking the bisque-fired piece to a hoist and lowering it into a tank filled with glaze. The glazes consist of 20 to 30 distinct formulations. These are selectively applied, layered, and abraded before and after firing. All the glazes are designed to run, mingle, and react with one another during firing; their liquidity and coarsely grained, multi-colored pigmentation is a testament to Miles’ chemical expertise. The work is never fired more than twice as the glazes are very reactive and multiple firings undo previous results. Because the pieces are so large, it’s necessary that they be highly vitrified and have strong material integrity, so Miles fires them in a gas kiln in oxidation to above cone 10.

7 Christopher Miles preparing a sculpture to be glazed.

8 View of the sculpture from above, supported by an electric hoist.

9 Miles slowly lowering the sculpture into the glaze.

Influences and Inspiration

A number of art-historical precedents inform Miles’ work. Aside from Peter Voulkos, Ken Price, and John Mason, Miles feels he has been most influenced by women sculptors who he has credited in the parenthetical titles of his work; Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Duckworth, Claire Falkenstein, and Barbara Hepworth. Multiple resonances with the Baroque, Chinese scholar’s and t’ai-hi rocks, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, and African termite mounds can be seen.

Ultimately, the ceramic medium appeals to Miles because of the way it registers touch and produces visceral results; he’s interested in the idea that the product records the physical effort of the making. He aims to push clay far as it will go—discovering how much it can and can’t do, what kind of forms can be achieved. He has what he calls an “old-school interest in form,” being formally inclined while engaged in other kinds of concerns, thinking conceptually and formally at the same time. His engagement and involvement with clay is both rational and sensual and combines painting, designing, and structuring compositions, but also being involved in the moment with the physical properties of his materials.

10 The electric hoist has lowered the sculpture into the glaze almost fully.

11 The piece did not submerge fully, so Miles pours glaze over the top of the sculpture.

12 The piece did not submerge fully, so Miles pours glaze over the top of the sculpture.

13 The piece is then unhooked from the electric hoist and set aside to dry. 7–13 Photos: Cecily Cronin Miles.

Christopher Miles has been the head of the California State University Long Beach ceramic arts program since 2016. His work has been featured in solo exhibitions at ACME gallery, Cuesta College, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. He has participated in multiple group exhibitions at Los Angeles galleries including Louver Gallery, Mount St. Mary’s College, the Pacific Design Center, and the Torrance Art Museum. His work has been reviewed in Art in America, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Sculpture magazine. Miles’ work was featured in a solo show at Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco in January 2020.

the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.

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