Susan Miller on the Art of Criticism . . . and Daniel Clowes

For Visual and Critical Studies alumna Susan Miller, who just received her degree in 2012, the final semester of graduate school proved to be a series of both great challenges and great successes. Simultaneously, she researched and wrote her thesis while co-curating a major exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, an effort that had been decades in the making.

(The exhibition is on view at the Oakland Museum until August 12, 2012, after which it will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; and then various venues in Europe.)

Before she ever arrived at CCA for graduate school, Miller had already built a long curatorial career distinguished by hard and impassioned work and the desire to give artists a platform to be heard. "I was drawn to the Bay Area's vibrant community of artist-run spaces," she explains of her 1986 move to San Francisco. She left the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, where she was the promotions director, to be a part of San Francisco's collectivist and grassroots contemporary art scene.

From 1988 to 1992 she served as the program director of Capp Street Project (which later became affiliated with CCA's Wattis Institute) before moving to New Langton Arts in San Francisco, which she headed from 1993 to 2005.

At Capp Street Project, Miller produced exhibitions and installations of work by Mowry Baden, Shu Lea Cheang, Mel Chin, and Ursula von Rydingsvard, among many others. After moving to New Langton Arts, she focused the programming on important local artists who had yet to receive the critical writings and public exposure she felt they deserved.

Some of her "profile" exhibitions there surveyed the work of the local artists Jim Pomeroy, Tony Labat, and Jeanne Finley (now a CCA faculty member).

Encountering Daniel Clowes

Miller first encountered Daniel Clowes's comic illustration work in the adult section of a local comic book store in the early 1990s. Clowes, who lives in Oakland, is now a minor celebrity for his Ghost World and Art School Confidential series. Both have been made into feature films directed by Terry Zwigoff: Ghost World in 2001 starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, and Art School Confidential in 2006 with John Malkovich.

But at the time, Clowes's relegation to the "adult" category spoke to the difficulty of classifying nonpornographic works of illustration that were intended for adults. "I began to view Clowes as an important, but largely unrecognized, artist," she says, "and I decided to include one of his works in an upcoming exhibition of portraiture at New Langton."

A Plunge Into the Academic Writing World

Miller, who had maintained a painting career all this time, increasingly found herself fascinated by the ability of the written word to "map culture." Finally she decided to pursue a graduate degree that would strengthen her writing and critical thinking skills.

Her thesis -- the culmination of her two years in CCA's Visual and Critical Studies Program -- was about contemporary artists who "self-present" in their work. She focused on three case studies: Daniel Clowes, whose work was now widely known (in settings very different from the dank back rooms of comic book stores); the artist known as Carter, who works in many different fine-art media; and the filmmaker Cory McAbee. She was specifically interested in their varied uses of portraiture, from Clowes's more traditional, expressive use of the genre to Carter's critiques of its capacity to replicate likeness or represent identity.

At the same time, she was hard at work on a major traveling solo exhibition of Clowes's work. Though he had garnered mainstream success since that long-ago showing at New Langton Arts, almost none of his original illustrations had ever been exhibited. Even Clowes's publishers had only ever seen the finished material he scanned and sent to them. Granted full access to his files over the course of her research, she says, "I saw things that no one but he had ever seen!" Unearthing new material is something any researcher lives for, and her role as a curator made it possible.

Theoretical Approaches

Working on two major projects with such overlapping subject matter had its advantages, but the overlapping deadlines also made things challenging -- occasionally "completely crazy." Her thesis work often challenged her curatorial work and vice versa, resulting in unexpected revisions and edits. "I had to practically rewrite my whole thesis in December," she says, to take into account the new theoretical approaches she was absorbing in graduate school.

Exposure to queer theory in particular forced her to rethink her approach to Clowes and take a different, more nuanced perspective. But Miller understands that these roadblocks are integral parts of the academic experience: "That’s what Visual and Critical Studies does; it forces you to look again and again, always from new perspectives. You just have to embrace it."

Miller found her academic training incredibly helpful in reexamining work she had known for a long time. "Applying queer theory to comic art was not something I would have ever thought of previously." Nor would she ever have had occasion to question quite so critically why she herself chooses to work with certain artists.

Amid the long list of CCA faculty and visiting artists, she cites Jacqueline Francis, Barry Katz, and Tirza True Latimer as having been especially inspiring and challenging, always pushing her to be more academically rigorous. She credits the program's hands-on approach for the dramatic development of her writing skills and confidence level.

Art World Changes Afoot

As she transitions into professional life post-CCA, Miller says that she senses major shifts happening -- in both the commercial and nonprofit art worlds -- that will require artists to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers. She has begun working as a consultant to artists who are seeking to further develop this aspect of their practices. And as a seasoned curator, she continues to use her expertise in exhibition development and publishing to help artists survive and thrive in an art economy that has been challenged by culture wars, funding cuts, and ever-changing technology.

Miller's résumé speaks volumes about her commitment to the Bay Area's arts community. From the Capp Street Project to New Langton Arts to CCA to the Oakland Museum and beyond, her valorization of under-recognized artists, her thoughtful writings and criticism, and her long-standing passion for helping artists get their voices heard have been instrumental for some of the Bay Area's most indispensable creative voices.