Glass artist John Miller takes a bite out of diner culture in Lowe Museum’s ‘Order Up!’
“Order Up! The Pop Art of John Miller,” 35 pieces of oversized glass sculptures of food, drink and more, is at The University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum through Jan. 14, 2024. Shown is “Suckers,” 2022-23, mold blown glass with wood, dimensions variable. (Photo courtesy of Mario Clarke, copyright John Miller)
Artist John Miller says everything in his life, both past and present, connects to his work. The fruits, or shall we say, fast foods of his labor will be on display in an exhibition of his giant glass creations, “Order Up! The Pop Art of John Miller” opening Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami.
His voice over the phone matches the playfulness of the oversized glass art, which for this exhibition focuses on diner-culture foods – a hamburger that’s two and a half feet in diameter, a milkshake that stands several feet high, for example.
Inspiration, he says, comes in all forms.
“It’s ‘the art as life approach,’ ” says Miller, who stepped out of class where he is an assistant professor and head of the glass department at Illinois State University, to talk about the display of 35 of his pieces, which will be in the museum’s Steven and Dorothea Green Galleries through Jan. 14, 2024. The solo exhibition was curated by Caitlin Swindell, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami.
Miller’s storied family history, he says, comes through in his work. From his great-grandmother, Helen, a bootlegger during the Prohibition Era, who John says “blasted out from Bradford, Pa., to go to New York to party and dance and sing” to his motorcycle racing father whose New Haven, Conn., auto shop was next door to a diner, growing up in a blue-collar world left an imprint.
“Going out to lunch with my dad to the diner, the gathering of people there and the cultural aspect of it coupled with the dramatic kind of footprint that the era of the diner left – there’s definitely nostalgia rolling around in there with my personal experiences,” he says.
And while the work is big on whimsy, it’s not a small feat. Miller, 56, admits it’s physically demanding and difficult to do. “The larger the work gets, the more difficult it is to make, but as the scale increases, it’s more humorous to the viewer,” he says. “It’s striking a balance between the intensity of the creative process and then the installation or object that the viewer gets to spend time with.”
He admits he was disenchanted with what was going on when he was studying for a degree in fine arts at the University of Illinois. Then he discovered Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born American Pop-art sculptor, best known for his giant soft sculptures of everyday objects.
“I was able to step out of the 1990s dark conceptual, almost downer artwork that was prominent. It was that era with the Seattle music scene, drug addiction, psychological issues,” he recalls. Then he saw Oldenburg’s work. “I’m like, wait a minute, this guy is making work that makes people laugh. I was drawn to him and the giant scale he was creating.”
He found himself not so interested in the angst-ridden influences that were fueling the practices of many of his classmates, but more toward what sparked joy in him.
“He wanted to mine a lighter vein of life and human existence, which is the everyday stuff,” says Jill Deupi, Ph.D., the beaux arts director and chief curator of the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum.
“John is very quick to acknowledge that he is following in the footsteps of the fathers and mothers of pop art,” she says. “He is not just making his work for giggles. He’s a serious artist. There’s something very intentional on his part – he doesn’t want to plumb the depths of human despair.”
The chief curator says it’s precisely the right time for the “Order Up!” show.
“It’s quite different for us in terms of the material or the way glass is used. It just felt right coming out of COVID and now Ukraine and Israel and everything that’s going on to offer to the community, this salve for the soul through this art,” says Deupi.
Miller’s show ties into the devotion to glass art that became part of the museum’s oeuvre when, in 2008, a donation of $1.7 million to the Lowe from glass-collecting couple Myrna and Sheldon Palley helped establish the Palley Pavilion for Contemporary Glass and Studio Arts, which now houses a $3.5 million glass collection; much of the work is from the Palleys highly valued personal collection.
“The 3,000-square foot extension is not only a unique asset – there are other museums with glass wings or glass focus – but there are very few academic institutions that do,” says Deupi.
The Kendall couple didn’t set out to be trailblazers as glass art collectors. Sheldon Palley says their passion began when they would visit craft fairs as a family outing in the 1970s. Myrna Palley, who turned her love of glass collecting into a lasting legacy for the university, died in 2020.
“We were collectors for 30 or 40 years,” says Sheldon.
He’s speaking from the kitchen of his home where, he says, he’s looking at one of Miller’s pieces that the couple bought at SOFA, The Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design fair in Chicago, years ago.
“It’s a hamburger with lettuce and tomatoes, French fries, and a Coke. We’ve had it for some time,” he says, noting that Myrna purchased the piece before Miller was well known. “She had a fantastic eye and we would find a lot of artists very early in their careers and he was one of them. I love his work. It’s something that’s different – using glass in a manner that not too many people have done as a pop art medium.”
Although he says that his glass art buying days ended with Myrna’s passing, there’s one more piece that he wants to add to the Palley Pavilion collection: Miller’s “M-n-S Palley Chip Co., est. 1956” a glass sculpture of a bag of chips, a work Miller made in honor of the influential couple. The meaning behind the established date of the chip company on the bag is a tribute to the year the couple was married.
“That’s it – that’s the piece we are buying from the show and we will be donating it to the Lowe,” says Sheldon.
For those who may want a shot at owning their own piece of glass diner lore, the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce was invited by the museum to have businesses in the city be part of a scavenger hunt called, “Where’s the Burger?”
A dozen of Miller’s small glass hamburger sliders will be positioned at businesses throughout the city for the run of the show. Treasure hunters who locate one are encouraged to take a selfie with the slider and post it to the museum’s Instagram page (a QR code near the work offers more information). The sliders are valued at $175 and signed by the artist. The secret sauce? Find as many of John’s burgers as possible around town, which increases the chances of winning.
WHAT: “Order Up! The Pop Art of John Miller”
WHERE: University of Miami Lowe Art Museum, 1301 Stanford Drive, Coral Gables
WHEN: Opens Thursday, Oct. 26. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday through Jan. 14, 2024.
INFORMATION: (305) 284-3535 or lowe.miami.edu
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.