Building a Mystery at the James Watrous Gallery

Building a Mystery at the James Watrous Gallery

A sense of mystery pervades the work of Trent Miller. Visitors to the James Watrous Gallery can get a feel for it through Spindrift and Tether, an exhibition running through February 24. They can decipher his interesting and narrative charcoals, and they’ll also likely enjoy contemplating a tent-like form that appears in many of his vibrant paintings.

The works share the gallery with multimedia installations by digital artist Toby Kaufmann-Buhler. In Hidden States, he uses video and sound to challenge viewers in the ways they approach perception.

Miller recently answered a few questions about his show.

You list a range of influences as inspirations for this exhibition. How did those all come together and how did they inform the show?

I am constantly looking to other art, music, film, books for cues to my own artistic creations. Sometimes there are just things that hit me right and I continue to think about them for periods of times. Eventually they might make it into my work. The Josh Ritter song “Another New World” is a great example. That song has haunted me for several years now, and as I was working on these paintings and drawings it kept drifting through my mind. I never tried to depict a particular scene from the song, but in the end I think the mood comes through in a lot of the current pieces.

An architectural, tent-like structure appears often in your work. What is this imagery and what does it mean to you? 

The tent-like form originally came from seeing the work of artist Emery Blagdon at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2006. In the years since that experience, I’ve used this form repeatedly and it has come to look like an unfinished building, a scaffold or, more recently, even a ship. I’m not interested in representing any one of these things: I enjoy the openness of interpretation that can come with this particular form. To me the form feels like it could be both healing and a bit dangerous at the same time. 

What’s your typical process like for creating a painting?

I work on several large paintings and many small paintings at the same time. I’ll usually work for about a year on a series of pieces. Some take most of the year, but others can come together much faster. The main thing is to continue to work on the pieces over a long period of time and be open to going down a path much different from the initial spark that started the painting or series of paintings.

Much of your work is vibrant in color, yet you also do some black and white work. How do you alternate between the two?

Over the past couple of years the paintings have become a lot more vibrant. A lot of the color decisions are intuitive, and I guess these are just the colors that work for these particular paintings. Things could totally change in the next set of pieces, but for now color is king in the paintings. I’ve worked on small black and white drawings for many years now alongside my paintings. They are much quicker and are a very direct way to make an image. I love the strong black and white contrast and the way an image can appear in a matter of minutes in this kind of work. 

I like the titles of many of your charcoal on paper works (“THEY Collected Artifacts,” “THEY Domed the Specimens”). Who is the “THEY” you refer to?

THEY are different for all of us. We all occasionally say, “They said this” or “They did that.” I think the idea of THEY came from this idea of the other, and also when I first started making the work I thought, “Who are they?” and then I realized “THEY are they.” By starting with THEY, I feel like there are endless possibilities for what the figures could do in this imagined world.

You’ve with Toby Kaufmann-Buhler in the past. Did you collaborate with him at all for this show?

Toby and I have been friends for some time now. We talked a lot about this show and about the works in it, but we didn’t directly collaborate on any pieces. There are definitely some ideas that tie our work together, and we do hope to work on a project in the future.

What experience would you like viewers to have by seeing your art?

When I look at the art I love the most, I forget about everything else around me; I’m transported to a world that is new and that helps me to understand my world in a different way. Whether I’m experiencing music, film, visual art or something else, I’m always personally looking for that deep mystery in a piece that will keep me thinking and contemplating for weeks or years to come. Since this is what I look for in a piece, I would love for viewers to have this kind of experience with my work. I know that this kind of connection is rare, but it’s worth striving for. On a more basic level, I hope that most viewers can slow down and allow their minds to wander as they consider my work.

What’s next for you?

I’m nothing if not busy. I’m always painting and drawing, and I have a few more projects that will pop up in the coming year. I’m also the gallery coordinator for the Madison Central Library so I have a lot of planning to do before the new library opens in the fall. Finally, I’m working with some other local artists on the art blog Spackle Madison, so I hope to continue that and work with more people to promote the visual arts scene in and around Madison.

Spindrift and Tether and Hidden States run through February 24 at the James Watrous Gallery. For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of the James Watrous Gallery.