In the abandoned steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pa., Bill Miller began to feel his way toward his art. "We would go into the mills and build big sculptures," he says. "A big owl, a big monkey, on-site, based on the materials we could find on-site. Through that process, I got really involved in recycling materials, looking at art as recycling."
Scavenging for materials in the trash, he found a piece of blue linoleum. "It was too beautiful," he says. "It looked like the sky. I got excited about it and started to collect it."
Miller learned the trash day for most of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods and spent the next year rummaging through dumpsters and abandoned buildings, looking for old linoleum.
Linoleum is a floor covering made from linseed oil, resins, cork dust, and other materials. Invented in the 1850s, its use flourished through the mid-1950s and came in an astoundingly wide variety of colors and patterns, in which Miller saw the perfect material for collage. "I always insist that I don't paint on any of these," he says, pointing up at a detailed portrait of John Waters' diva Devine hanging on the wall of Mr. Rain's Fun House, where 23 of his works are on display through January. To create it, he used a vast assortment of different pigments of linoleum, layering them so that the face gains a dense, three-dimensional quality. The texture and depth provided by Miller's layering has an extraordinary, Cézanne-like effect. This is especially noticeable on the chin. From a distance, it gives her face a sculptural quality, but up close, one can see a single piece of flesh-toned linoleum stuck over the top of everything else.
"I did it so she would look fat," Miller says. "She kept looking like Amy Winehouse." On top of the layers, Miller has applied a thick varnish giving the image, whose pose is based on the Mona Lisa, a Flemish sheen.
After almost 20 years of collecting the material, Miller says he now has "literally tons of it." Sometimes the images are suggested by the linoleum itself. "I started out doing all landscapes," Miller says. "Trees and stuff. There was this one green piece of linoleum I found that just looked like a hill, and so I slapped it down and built a landscape around it." At other times, the process is more like putting together a puzzle where there are no precut pieces and no predetermined guiding images.
Most of Miller's imagery comes from his youth in the 1960s. The most detailed and stunning of the recent works hanging in Mr. Rain's is a scene from the Kent State massacre in 1970: a woman with rich brown skin, a sky-blue shirt, darker blue jeans, a yellow hat, pink shoes, and jet-black hair kneels, her face an echo of Edvard Munch's iconic "The Scream." In front of her lies a slain student in brown slacks and a blue shirt with a crown of thorns on his head. Beside the woman, a man with Warhol-white hair stands in a buckskin coat. In the background, two different shades of grass-colored lino give the image even greater depth as nine other figures move across the field, the industrial red-brick buildings looming up behind them, echoing the shock of red coming from the slain student's head.
The murdered Kent State student appears again in "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," a deceptively beautiful landscape that, again, recalls Cézanne. In front of undulating woodland hills, the student lies there again, an orange-clad hunter with a smoking gun disappearing into the folds of the land.
Again the student appears in a gray-toned American flag spotted with indelible images from the 1960s: a protester with a peace sign, an astronaut, a folk singer, Jackie Kennedy crawling along after the president's brains behind the car in Dallas, and in the forefront, Kennedy himself, his cranial matter coming out of the back of his head as in the Zapruder film. Another pair of images feature an astronaut-the first planting the American flag on the moon and the second hanging, crucified.
A more recent countercultural image is probably Miller's greatest claim to fame, depicting Frank Zappa as he testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, offering a scathing critique of the Parents' Musical Resource Center and Tipper Gore while defending free speech. Zappa's widow, Gail, had previously purchased one of Miller's portraits of Zappa and invited him over to the Zappa compound. "You know he's famous for having a vault under the house where he stored everything he ever did," Miller says. "And Dweezil [Zappa, Frank and Gail's son,] happened to be practicing with his band, so we got the full tour." When the estate decided to release the album Congress Shall Make No Law in 2010 to mark the 25th anniversary of Zappa's testimony, they commissioned Miller to make the cover. A study for the original Zappa image is showing at Mr. Rain's (though it is not for sale).
According to Miller, this series of images details a period in which his own loss of innocence corresponded with that of the nation. But for those not obsessed with 50-year-old images, or the counterculture, it might seem that these cultural motifs would grow tired. In reality, it somehow fits the nature of the material; most people who are familiar with linoleum associate it with homes from that period.
"Those images are part of our collective consciousness," says Russell Howard, Miller's longtime partner. "And Bill is able to project that with the use of this nostalgic medium."
But not all of the images are nostalgic. In addition to landscapes, Miller draws from his own dream imagery and in an especially fine piece from Anton Chekhov's play Three Sisters.
When Maria Buszinski, one of the restaurant's proprietors, first saw Miller's work, she thought it was perfect for Mr. Rain's. "Rebecca [Hoffberger, the founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, which houses Mr. Rain's,] said that she wanted it to feel seamless when people came out of the restaurant and into the museum. And his work really fit that experience."
And though he doesn't consider himself a "visionary" or "outsider" artist, Miller's work is the perfect complement to the work in the museum just outside of Mr. Rain's Fun House. And his notion of recycled art is finally starting to gain wider traction, as evidenced by his inclusion in Drap Art 12, an international festival of recycled art in Spain.
And though he still has a large collection of linoleum, Miller is all too conscious of the limited nature of his medium. "The window to find the stuff does close every year," he says. "Less and less is available."
Through Jan. 10, 2013 at Mr. Rain's Fun House