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A&E >  Art

Hazel Miller’s first solo exhibit, ‘The Black Universe,’ explores humanity and being alive

UPDATED: Thu., June 10, 2021

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

The big picture window in front of the home of painter Hazel Miller, 27, was recently cracked, exposing a jagged hole marring its center. Shards of glass are still embedded in the living room sofa. The vandal is Miller’s dog Gertrude (named after Gertrude Stein), whose neuroses prompted a frantic lunge at some imagined danger lurking outside.

But Miller, who is working with a trainer to calm her dog’s bad habits, bears no ill will toward her furry protector. She focuses on the beauty within.

“Gertrude thinks her job is to defend at all costs,” Miller said. “Look at her eyelashes. Aren’t they amazing?”

Miller’s Zen approach to life is informed by her study of Buddhism and Daoism. The philosophies she embraces also influence her art. She uses the physical act of painting to reach a meditative and peaceful state or experience.

“There is only so much I can understand (about Eastern religions) as a white Western woman, but with my painting, it seems so connected to the present moment and to flow, which is the main reason I paint,” Miller said. “It’s to enter that mind space.

“The brush becomes an extension of your hand, an extension of your eye. I love those moments of trying to use as few strokes as possible to get the message across.”

Some of those moments are captured in Miller’s first solo exhibition, “The Black Universe,” showing now at the Terrain Gallery through June.

Miller’s universe is filled with goddesses who exude ancient wisdoms while still embodying contemporary female agency. There is a timelessness, an embedded mythology, to her life-sized figures. The women take viewers on a journey inside themselves and into their own universes.

“I’m grappling with what it is to be a woman, about the different roles that women perform in society,” Miller said. “But the overall intent is deeper than that; it’s more about being a human, being alive and what that means.”

Miller’s struggles with bipolar disorder and her search for meaning are woven into much of her work. Her stunning 8-foot-wide life-sized painting “The Huntress” shows an Artemis figure leading a three-headed dog on a golden leash.

“It looks like the dog has three heads, but it could also be the three mental states from my perspective, which are manic, neutral and depressed,” Miller said. “I was coming out of this pretty rough part of my life when I painted that, and I was trying to get control of the situation, and so I think that’s what happening with this leash.”

Another eye-catching painting is the large canvas of a woman with two faces, veiled and seated inside a cave. Her two faces take on many meanings. Perhaps they represent the neutral state and manic state inside a person. Or they could be the different roles into which women must fit themselves.

On most of the pieces in “Black Universe,” Miller used a lot of black gesso, typically a primer for acrylics.

“I was going to go over it in oil, but then I fell in love with the gesso,” Miller said. “I’d been studying Zen art and this concept of ‘stroke energy,’ or the life force of brush strokes.”

Black in Buddhism symbolizes primordial darkness, Miller said.

“It also symbolizes the transmutation of hate into compassion, or love,” she said.

Along with the black, at times, Miller populates her canvases with the lush flora and fauna associated with her hometown of San Antonio.

Large palm fronds often find their way into Miller’s backgrounds. Other times, the plants themselves take over the starring roles. “The Wedding” is based on a photograph of the artist’s mother in her wedding photos at a botanical garden.

Miller recently picked out a dress for her upcoming nuptials to longtime boyfriend Josh Lorenzen, co-founder of Rut. The two met in Portland when Miller was a student at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Lorenzen was a sous chef at Bijou Cafe. The couple moved to Lorenzen’s hometown to open Rut with co-owner Justin Oliveri.

Miller’s paintings have graced the walls of Rut since the restaurant’s opening in 2019. She sells most of her art through the online gallery Saatchi and through commissions. Terrain is her first solo show.

At Terrain last Friday, Miller set up a canvas for herself in the middle of the room so she could paint in front of those who attended the First Friday opening.

She worked on a piece titled “The Tar Pit,” which depicts the fossil of a reptile.

On her Instagram @hazelthepainter, Miller often posts time-lapse videos of herself painting in her studio.

Miller doesn’t pretend she paints in public for anyone’s benefit but her own.

“There’s something to be said for doing a live painting, in the moment, for people,” Miller said. “But, really, it’s just fun.”

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