It poses a challenge to distill down a person’s complicated life into only a few minutes, but can it be boiled down into a catalogue of photomontages? According to Jana Miller, yes. On Friday, August 29, 2008, from 6:30-9:00 p. m. at the Visual Arts Building on campus of the University of Texas at Dallas, Miller was in charge of acknowledging the golden years of an elderly widow to remind viewers of their roots. Jo Harvey Sullivan’s life was a continuous story waiting to be told. There were no written biographies or books on her. But Sullivan’s essence was not recreated out of words, it was narrated through images.
Miller uses serial photography in Spring Cleaning, 30 x 24″ Resin Coated Ultrachrome print, and Late Afternoon, 30 x 24″ Resin Coated Ultrachrome print, to portray the fusion of past, present, and future through heavy symbolism and veiled elements of art and design. Spring Cleaning (Figure 1) depicts Jo Harvey Sullivan decked out in a luminescent yellow t-shirt along with pants the color of a late afternoon sky, two of the three primary colors. This compilation of portraits showcases her performing various mundane tasks that are involved in the process of cleaning the garage: sweeping, hanging, and organizing.
Or does it? The color yellow gives a sense of hope, and as Sullivan focuses her eyes on the sun, she has to squint for a clear image. In that single focal snapshot, Miller indicates her grandmother is looking out towards the future that may or may not be. The rest of the still images of Sullivan all combine to emphasize that one point. The bright, yet at the same time dull, color of Sullivan’s pants gives the message that life is still burning inside her, but for how many more days will the sun set, till its for good? In the center of the background Sullivan is shown sweeping, but sweeping what?
Dust bunnies? No, sweeping regrets for a cleaner present, and hanging up new memories. In this collage all seems to be in balance except one lone image of Sullivan in the far left of this photomontage, isolated from the rest, re-organizing with her back to the camera. Now in her eighties Sullivan is prioritizing and categorizing life in the way she sees fit. In Millers’s creations time seems to be at a standstill yet there is that omnipresent feeling that it is slipping away due to the appearance of Sullivan being caught it mid-motion.
The lines indicating the contours of the garage frame enclose the picture, but the open door gives a medium of escape, like a breath of fresh air to the claustrophobic nature of the photo. The lateral direction of the lines represents the stable and static lifestyle Sullivan leads. As mentioned before, the eye is immediately drawn to the image of Sullivan gazing at the sun, and from there the eye is gradually drawn outwards to encompass the other still shots that all return to emphasize that focal point. That, not only, displays the principle of movement, but unity as well.
In the overall composition of Spring Cleaning, Miller demonstrates through profound imagery how her grandmother copes with her past, lives in the present, and hopes for the future. At first everything looks real. Gradually it sifts in that this is digital photography, the image is manipulated, and nothing we see is quite real, except maybe Sullivan. Millers’s print makes the best of a new medium, holding to traditional values, while twisting and rippling reality. This untraditional light graph has depth, color and composition.
Everything seems so solidly traditional. A simple seeming, beautiful, strong think piece that invites us to consider and reconsider, subtly startling us into new understandings. In full size this bigger-than-life photo shouts of shapes congealing into the normalcy of a passing moment, not sports heroes or flashy ads. Like in real life, where reality lets off and alteration begins is difficult to discern, there was a strong sense of familiarity. The instillation of the exhibit (Figure 2) was represented in a manner that showcased her life from the break of dawn to nightfall, a long with Sullivan’s rebellious nature in terms of footwear.
In Miller’s practice, process and product are intertwined in an effort to answer difficult questions about being an artist today. What place do the elderly have in social realities? How can photomontages respectfully incorporate-rather than exploit-thought-provoking and relevant imagery to comment on or communicate about pressing intimate issues? Seen together, the photographs in this exhibition provide a glimpse into the artist’s ongoing struggle to confront these challenges. In turn; they prompt us all to ask how much we contribute to the creation of stereotypes of our world, and do we conform to those that apply to us?
Everyday we fight an internal battle; the winner defines your character. Issues of individuality weave in and out of our subconscious, driving our actions and influencing our goals. Those who are lucky enough to establish a clear sense of self still wonder, “Who am I? “. When I write about Miller as the creator of her grandmother’s identity, I speak about the creation of part of my identity. Miller’s photographs have created in me a visual memory of my own grandmother and have helped me understand and respect my roots.
Furthermore, my memories are accompanied with feelings of pain, pride, and magic that come directly from the emotions represented in the photomontages. The pain Sullivan has experienced is represented by each line on her face, but her pride of what she is today, a strong independent woman, is seen through her posture and clothing. The magic that is the future is brought out through the colors Sullivan surrounds herself with day to day. Miller makes me question weather I will be a traditionalist in my golden years, and or will I challenge society’s view on what the elderly should wear and how they should act.
A Visual Biography: Jo Harvey Sullivan is a psychological novel; it represents Jana Millers’s passion, a sense of identity, hope, strength, and loneliness. This is evident in her works’ vibrant colors yet isolated atmosphere. Miller subtly uses the elements and principles of design in her photomontages to reiterate the theme of re-connecting the past, present, and future. Also, these works have the same idea and process, and there is no individual growth in the art because the works are related together as a book chronicling Sullivan’s reality.
Only an assortment of photographs is used, but she uses certain techniques which do not require a contrast of reality and fantasy. The technique used is digital photography which morphs into strong compositions and realistic colors, yet it is comprised of an aura and premise understood and acknowledged by all races, genders, and ages. Miller portrays the suffering and optimism of an eighty year old woman, which society has placed limitations and expectations on because of a number.