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BLDG 92 Visiting Artist Michael Miller Explores the Seen and Unseen

This Saturday, July 26 will be the summer installment of our Seasonal Photography Tours of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As always, the tour will be accompanied by a photo contest, and this season’s photos will be selected by another BLDG 92 Visiting Artist, painter and visual artist Michael Miller.

Michael’s appointment as a visiting artist at the Yard was not his first encounter with seafaring. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he has always been proud of his hometown’s rich shipbuilding history. A century ago, the city was the world’s preeminent shipbuilder, and Clydebuilt vessels (Glasgow sits on the River Clyde) made up the better part of all the British ships afloat. Michael’s father served in the merchant navy, and later went on to work at Scotland’s major container terminal, Coatbridge (thought it’s many miles from the sea, it is served by rail and highway links). “If ever I said I was going to any country that had a coastline” Michael said as we chatted in BLDG 92 recently, “[my dad] would say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been there.'”

"Propeller," Michael Miller
“Propeller,” Michael Miller

Michael has always been interested in art, but it was a career that came to him later in life. After studying history and geography in the UK, he moved to Florence, Italy, where he received his PhD in contemporary history; his work focused on urban social movements in post-industrial cities, something he was familiar with as Glasgow’s waterfront declined, and the city with it. It was in Italy that he started studying art seriously, and after stints in Switzerland and Mozambique (his wife works for the United Nations, and he also works in the human rights field), he landed in Brooklyn four years ago.

"Dazzle II," Michael Miller
“Dazzle II,” Michael Miller

Even before he was selected as a BLDG 92 Visiting Artist, Michael had built connections at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He sits on the board of SONYA, South of the Navy Yard Artists, and he keeps his studio just a couple blocks away on Washington Avenue. And in 2013, he was selected to paint a piano for Sing for Hope, an organization that, among other projects, places pianos in public spaces around New York City. Michael had a a unique idea for his design. “I just wanted to play with the idea of the size of it, the physical presence, rather than the sound.” he said. “So I thought, let’s look at how people have tried to change the presence of a large object, and that was what brought me to dazzle camouflage.”

"Dazzle Piano," Michael Miller
“Dazzle Piano,” Michael Miller

Dazzle camouflage was a type of naval camouflage developed in the early twentieth century (we recently wrote about it on this blog). By using irregular geometric shapes, lines jutting in multiple directions, and bright colors, designers believed it made it more difficult for the enemy to visually gauge a ship’s speed, direction, distance, and identity, even though they could clearly see the ship. Dazzle camouflage was never just a military technology – it’s development was, in part, inspired by the burgeoning abstract and cubist art movements, and it has continued to inspire artists. Though Michael’s piece was sparked by a piece of naval history, he did not know when he made it that it would end up at an historic naval site – the forecourt of BLDG 92, where it spent last summer.

From that project, he has continued to work with the idea of dazzle, and he has used the landscapes and archival materials of the Brooklyn Navy Yard as his inspiration, combining his training as an historian and an artist. “I began to see [camouflage] as a metaphor,” he said. “By revealing something, we’re hiding something else. The camouflage draws attention to something, but you’re also distorting it at the same time.”

He has looked for inspiration beyond just the vessels of the First World War and dove deeper into the Yard’s photo archives. “There’s one of the USS Brooklyn, and it’s in the dry dock, taken from underneath the bow. And it looks like a knife blade – you can’t imagine there’s this whole light cruiser behind this line. It’s almost organic, it almost looks like a strange creature.” This has moved him to try and find ways to make photos of the explicit – technical photos of machinery, buildings, and ship parts make up the better part of the photo archive – and make them into something abstract. “I like to take elements and make them a little less clear or obscure. And I feel that that’s consistent with the whole camouflage question.” You can see where he is starting to work with this idea in the “Propeller” painting above – abstracting the concrete, taking the mechanical and making it more organic.

"USS Brooklyn," Michael Miller
“USS Brooklyn,” Michael Miller

Many of our photographers have had great success taking the pallet of the Navy Yard’s landscape and using it to compose something abstract. This was a popular theme among the Spring submissions, as it was with the 2013 year-end prize winners. We hope you’ll join us for a tour this Saturday, and we look forward to hearing Michael’s insights and reflections on your submissions.

BLDG 92 Brooklyn Navy Yard Center logo

Turnstile Tours offers the Seasonal Photography Tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard four times throughout the year.  The next tour of the 2014 season will be Saturday, July 26 at 3pm.  Get more information here, and advance ticket purchase is highly recommended.  We also offer our Past, Present & Future Tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard every Saturday and Sunday, 2:30-4:30pm, and other special themed tours of the Yard.  All tours are offered in partnership with and begin at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, which offers free admission to three floors of exhibitions on the yard’s past and present, the Ted & Honey rooftop cafe, and a host of great special events and programs.