A searing smoke trail comes across the sky. A field burns in the distance, and while some men are shown trying to put out the fire, others pull up in their cars to watch the spectacle. The air is grainy and perceptibly palpable, like rain is falling. This isn’t a scene from a movie or a novel, although there are likely scenes from either medium that inspired the artist, Rob Miller, to use it as the base for his work.
The image, distinguished on his page as being in Topeka, Kansas, is one of the many disorienting, nostalgia-infused images that make up the oeuvre of the artist. Miller, 30, blends themes from across mediums using 35mm prints. “There is surprisingly a market for them on eBay — old, personal family photos that somehow end up in auctions,” says Miller. “It’s like this weird look into the past — most of these slides have probably not been seen by anyone in decades. And they probably haven’t been seen by anyone except for the families that took them. It’s a really wild feeling, feeling like you have this unique look directly into the past.” The antiquated lifestyle shown in Miller’s collages connects that of the current day, however, the chaotic images incorporated by the artists offer a critique into the angst and confusion going on today. Miller uses these prints as the basis for his artwork, editing them to enhance the intended effect. The subjects depicted are often posing or going about their business, unaware of the supernova which has replaced their sun, or the flying saucer burning a hole in the sky – perhaps a comment on the saturation of the unusual which pervades our culture via the media.
Little nods like these – reminiscent of the jabs author Thomas Pynchon makes in his novels, are the result of the artist’s spontaneity when creating the collages. Oddly enough, Miller incorporated the ideas of novels – particularly from post modern authors like Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Kurt Vonnegut to inform the atmosphere of each work. “I kind of see my job as the artist to juxtapose and manipulate them into some kind of alternate-reality that sits in both the past and the present,” Miller says. “American history is largely glamorized in our country and a lot of the images I use are kind of like ‘idealistic’ American life – families, houses, vacations. But we all know and sense a deep, dark undercurrent in our culture, and I think I try to express that angst by pairing the ideal with the dystopian.”
Miller is a Pittsburgh native and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, is Pynchonian himself, often opting to work solo rather than collaborate and declining commissions for his work. “I have had a bunch of people reach out over the years for me to do an album cover for them, but I usually just ignore the request. It’s mostly because my work is a thing that I just do alone for myself and it’s hard for me to feel confident in trying to produce something for someone else. I would much prefer that people just license my work than have me make something custom for them.” The most notable (and only) exception being his cover artwork for singer-songwriter Jocelyn Alice’s 2019 album “How Dare You.”
A lifelong art lover and creator, he embarked on his career eight years ago, eventually posting his work on Instagram after a warm reception from friends and family. His page (@robcmillercollage) is a popular stop for vintage connoisseurs, with over 4,000 followers.. As his following continues to grow, Miller hopes to make his passion a self sustaining, full-time gig. “In my head I guess I have this vague notion that if I keep doing my work long enough and continue to do it passionately,” says Miller. “Making a living from it will naturally figure itself out. It is a long-term goal to at some point be able to, but I have no specific plan on how to make that happen.”
If one word could summarize the opus of visual artists of Rob Miller, it would be “pastiche.” Each photo explicitly pays homage to a certain era of Americana; saturated with references to literary and musical genres. The scenes depicted in these are creative regurgitation of popular motifs and styles, but blended together and arranged to create something completely new. His image “The Adventures of Johnny Justice Vol.4” is defined by a large gunslinger from the Wild West, the bullet barely out of the barrel of his gun, as he stands over a courthouse with an enlarged image of the moon looming in the background. It’s as if Miller melted down the best parts of films like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “LA Confidential” and put them on a film poster from the ‘60s. The moon is deeply reminiscent of the cover of blues guitarist Mighty Joe Young’s eponymous 1976 album.
Right about now, there is a tremendous urge to think back to the good ol’ days – particularly to a time when most of the globe wasn’t on lockdown and the population wasn’t drastically dropping with each passing day. Back when times were simpler and when technology did what we needed instead of what we wanted. It may not seem like it, but as technology becomes more sophisticated, we depend more on it and we can see our lack of control over the evolving state of society through these advances in the chaotic landscape of Miller’s collages. While there are so many things going on at once, we overlook what is important: people. People at the center of each picture are the definition of mundane, going about the business of their daily lives without noticing what’s going on around them. They are the only tether to reality in a scene that could be defined as the exact opposite of real. Miller perhaps suggests that we as people should wake up and question the “normalcy” of our surroundings, since they may be stranger than we think.