Interview With Joseph A. Miller on Figurative Art

TheCollector recently had the pleasure of chatting with Joseph A. Miller, artist and Associate Professor of Art at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo State.

Apr 26, 2024By Phil Jones, MA Linguistics, BA Political Science

joseph a miller interview figurative art


In a world full of abstract art that graces both the walls of motel rooms and the world’s most renowned museums, it is sometimes a wonder that figurative art retains a place in the contemporary art world. To explore this notion, TheCollector interviewed Joseph A. Miller, Associate Professor of Art at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo State, where he has taught drawing and painting since 1997. As an artist himself, Miller provided an interesting look into figurative art, drawing both from art history and his own personal experiences.


Joseph A Miller Mask
Mask by Joseph A. Miller, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist


What is Figurativism, and would you say your art falls into this category? 


I do feel that my art falls into the category of Figurativism, which is a balance between literal and imagined imagery. By drawing and painting shapes, figures, and objects from life and memory, I try to emphasize some aspects of their naturalistic qualities. But my experiments with juxtapositions, context, message, and symbolism expand my observations beyond rote mimesis. In doing so, I hope to create expressive art that is both relatable and memorable.   


Rest Stop by Joseph A. Miller, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist


How does the element of fantasy come into play in figurativism? 


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To me, fantasy is a form of subjective daydreaming about impossible or improbable imaginings.  Since art is the celebration and expression of subjectivity, figurativism and fiction are as related as fact and fiction. Fantasy is imagined fiction. Fiction is artificial. The word “art” is hidden in plain sight in the first three letters of the word “artificial.”


Both narrative and symbolism are important elements in figurative art. Could you elaborate on this? 


Narrative is storytelling, and Symbolist art emphasizes the imagined over the observed.


Figurative artists often make use of both imagined and observed imagery. It makes sense that they would do so because while observable phenomena are a useful and obvious starting point, the poetry of art is in the interpretation of that observed phenomena.  


where the wild things are maurice sendak
Cover page for Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, originally published in 1963. Source: Thalia


Do you remember your first encounter with contemporary figurative art? What was it that struck you the most? 


Yes. I remember as a child looking at the thin paper edge of the page of my copy of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I was mesmerized by how much illusion and meaning was squeezed onto that thin sheet of paper. For me, this was a magic trick that I wanted to learn how to do!


Also, in the kitchen of my grandparents’ Pennsylvania farmhouse was a framed print of Andrew Wyeth’s egg tempera painting Groundhog Day. While no figures are depicted in that painting, their nearby presence is implied by the cup, saucer, plate, and knife, which are so curiously presented, bathed in ambient light on the kitchen table.


Joseph A Miller Crossing
Le Père Jacques (The Wood Gatherer) by Jules Bastien-LePage, 1881. Source: Wikimedia Commons; with Crossing by Joseph A. Miller, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist


Figurative art has experienced a strong revival in recent years, though contemporary figurativism differs greatly from traditional art historical styles. What are the primary differences between traditional and contemporary figurativism?


Figurative artists of the past set a technical standard of craft that is admired and sometimes emulated by figurative artists today (including myself). The buffet of subject matter has increased as there is more of everything today. And most importantly, most figurative artists today do not feel bound by the rules of an academy or the desires of a patron.


joe studio photograph christine carr miller
Joe in his Studio by Christine Carr Miller. Source: Courtesy of Christine Carr Miller


Figurativism’s contemporary revival originated largely in the 1970s. The Pop Art, Photorealist, and Neo-Expressionist movements paved the way, with artists such as David Hockney, Chuck Close, and Georg Baselitz making figurative art popular again. Could you give a brief explanation of the three movements and how they contributed to the renewal of figurativism?


Pop Art draws inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture. The Photorealist movement of the 1970s was an offshoot of Pop Art in that it drew inspiration from attempting to make paintings that resembled photographs, which is a very different endeavor than the historic Realism movement, whose goal had more to do with a reverence for nature, than a reverence for the plastic snapshot.


Neo-Expressionism developed as a reaction against both Conceptual Art and Minimal Art of the 1970s. The Neo-Expressionists’ intense subjectivity and rough handling of materials defined a form of expression that was figurative but sometimes abstracted.


Contemporary Figurativism, being a natural evolution from historic figurative and Realist art, in some sense never went away. It’s a movement in art that, despite the waxing and waning of its popularity, seems to have persisted in practice ever since we painted on the walls of caves.


big self portrait chuck close
Big Self-Portrait by Chuck Close, 1967-1968. Source: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis


How have these movements and artists influenced your own work?


Very little, because even with photorealism, the main objective was to make a painting resemble the flat, texture-less surface of a photograph, which is not my goal. I like to play with the illusion of verisimilitude, but I also enjoy physical texture. I strive for a visually seductive image that, hopefully, pulls the viewer in close enough to reveal something poetic, something affirming. My own work has more in common, both technically and conceptually, with the narrative symbolism of historic figurative/realist art.


ophelia arthur hughes
Ophelia by Arthur Hughes, 1852. Source: Manchester Art Gallery; with Moon Rise Somewhere by Joseph A. Miller, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist


Are there other movements from art history that have inspired you?


Yes. Most notably the Naturalist Art movement and the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, the very art movements that the Impressionists were reacting against. Painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, Arthur Hughes, and John William Waterhouse have been influential in my art. If I could paint nature as convincingly as Bastien-Lepage and as magically as Hughes and Waterhouse, I might be mistaken for a contemporary Bouguereau! I aspire to be the best that I can be despite my shortcomings. As the musician Elvis Costello said (and I paraphrase), “style is what is left when you try to copy your heroes and can’t.”


The Eye is the First Circle by Lee Krasner, 1960. Source: Sotheby’s; with Breton Brother and Sister by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1871. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Many people pit figurative art against abstract art. However, are the styles necessarily meant to be juxtaposed? 


I don’t believe the styles are meant to be juxtaposed. But it is our natural tendency to compare things to define what they are and what they are not. Comparison and juxtaposition help us define, categorize, and make sense of things. 


Drone by Joseph A. Miller, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist


What place does figurative painting have in the contemporary art world today?


As long as we remain interested in looking into mirrors, I feel there will be interest in Figurative Art. The human figure is a timeless subject that can both seduce and repulse. It can generate feelings of both dignity and shame. It demands that we relate to, reflect upon, empathize, and reconcile with images of our own mortal bodies. Being a life-long student of figure drawing and painting, I take great pleasure in practicing and sharing, through teaching, what I have learned about this challenging and mysterious subject.


To learn more about Joseph Miller, visit his staff page here.

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By Phil JonesMA Linguistics, BA Political SciencePhil is a recognized specialist in classical numismatics and antiquities, having worked as a cataloguer for major auction houses, galleries, and private collectors around the world. He is extensively travelled in Europe and Asia, is a polyglot that can function at a native or near native level in over a dozen languages. In 1996 and 1999 respectively, he took teaching positions at Universities in South Korea and Turkey. As well, he has a formal academic background in linguistics and international politics with a MA in Linguistics, a BA in Political Science, and a BA in Spanish Philology from Wagner College, Staten Island, NY.