"There's another new world at the top of the world for whoever can break through the ice," sings Josh Ritter in his 2010 song "Another New World." These words drifted through Trent Miller's mind as he created Spindrift and Tether, his new solo exhibition at the Wisconsin Academy's Watrous Gallery. It's displayed alongside Hidden States, an intriguing collection of video art by fellow Wisconsin artist Toby Kaufmann-Buhler.
A lengthy list of inspirations hangs at the start of Spindrift, illuminating Miller's interest in themes such as exploration, renewal and hidden meanings. At the top of the list, near a shout-out to Ritter, is a reference to Emery Blagdon, an outsider artist who sculpted "healing machines." Fascinated by lightning, Blagdon crafted intricate compositions from wire, foil and magnets, which he hoped might channel the Earth's energies to fight cancer and other ailments. He then invited the sick to roam among his creations.
Like Blagdon, Miller seems to envision his artwork as a way to relieve pain, be it psychological or physical. In this exhibition, he touches upon something metaphysical as well.
The titles of Spindrift's works, which range from THEY Collected Artifacts to THEY Built US a Monument, construct an abstruse narrative that invites multiple interpretations. Charcoal drawings, which Miller describes as "enigmatic fairy tales where something's slightly off," provide clues about where the story might be headed.
A sketch featuring Egyptian-style headdresses and the Great Sphinx of Giza is particularly alluring. At times, the headdress-wearers are trapped in boxes, as if awaiting entombment. Perhaps this image represents the submerged pain of trauma (a theme Kaufmann-Buhler's exhibition also explores), or perhaps it's a comment on how stories get buried in the process of writing history. No matter what it represents, the artist's fascination with the occult is abundantly clear.
The show's more figurative pieces, such as a drawing of a ship, are echoed in abstract paintings that explore the concept of metamorphosis. Most of these works feature shapes that resemble sails. With a palette of neon oranges and blues, a painting called Flotsam suggests a ship being consumed by flames, despite the remedy the cool, wet sea provides. It may also reference the end of Ritter's song, in which a sailor burns his beloved ship to keep from freezing to death.
Across the gallery, 10 small, square paintings titled Healing Machine / Eikon 1-10 appear to document the process by which a mysterious, multifaceted object changes shape - or transforms into something different entirely. This object, it seems, is a healing machine. On some of the canvases, it looks rigid and defined, and on others, it looks like it's melting. Each painting showcases different colors, as if the machine changes hues as it changes form. In the final image, a ship approaches the apparatus, presumably at the end of a long, strange trip.
Perhaps it's not the machine doing the healing but the passage of time, as goes a saying as old as the Sphinx itself.