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OnlineMar 20, 2024

Shantel Miller’s “I’ve Been Trying to Reach You” Converses Across the Divide

At Anderson Yezerski Gallery, the artist explores ways that we form connections with one another through spiritual engagement.

Review by Shira Laucharoen

Shantel Miller's grandmother holds the image of a waterfall, standing in front of an orange wall.

Installation view, Shantel Miller’s “I’ve Been Trying to Reach You” on view at Anderson Yezerski Gallery, 2024. Photo courtesy of Anderson Yezerski Gallery.

The ways that we connect with each other are often bound in the concrete, but at other times, reaching someone requires us to transcend the physical. Shantel Miller’s solo exhibition “I’ve Been Trying to Reach You,” on view at Anderson Yezerski Gallery through March 23, is as much about the grounding of the body as a space for engagement as it is about awareness of the spiritual self. Through nine boldly colored paintings, Miller explores human beings grasping at unity while posing alternatives to traditional narratives about race, gender, and belief systems.

Miller, a Jamaican-Canadian artist whose works sensitively reveal the vibrancy of her subjects’ and her own inner worlds, graduated from Boston University with an MFA in painting. Many of her pieces deal with existentialism and subjectivity in representations of Black life. In the Anderson Yezerski presentation, her first exhibition with the gallery, one of the ways that she does this is by portraying matriarchal figures in her family with strong ties to faith, presenting them as powerful and reverent women.

A painting of multicolored poppies in a glass vase. It sits atop a cluttered table in front of a brown wall decorated with posters.

Shantel Miller, Poppies at Grandma’s House, 2023. 48 x 32 in. Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy of Anderson Yezerski Gallery.

In Poppies at Grandma’s House (2023), Miller shows spectators an ornate display of flowers resting on a table, blossoming with vivid colors. The circumstances are ordinary: salt and pepper shakers, a bottle of hot sauce, and stacks of papers are positioned beside the vase. On the wall behind them is a photograph of a cascading waterfall, a recurring motif in Miller’s work, and a note from Ecclesiastes that reads, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Amid this everyday scene of life are expressions of abundance, grace, and signs of spirituality. In this way, Miller is demonstrating that even the mundane can be infused with religious meaning.

A multimedia work depicting a little girl screen-printed pink, jump-roping in a living room. To her left cut off by a doorway, is an older person sitting on a bench, crossing their legs.

Shantel Miller, Back in My Body, 2020. 16 x 16 in. Graphite, colored pencil and oil on panel. Photo courtesy of Anderson Yezerski Gallery.

Many of the works in “I’ve Been Trying to Reach You” center on the body. Back in My Body (2020) depicts the figure of a young girl rendered in pink, jumping rope within the confines of her home. The image emphasizes the strength and power of the physical form in action, even in the playful image of a child caught in a game. Broken Vessel (2024) metaphorically envisions the body as an elaborate urn that is distinguished by a series of cracks. In the center of the object stands the image of a Black woman bent over before a scene of the ocean, and streams of water spout out from the fractures in the vessel. The physical figure is portrayed as something shattered, elusive, and changing. Both the urn and the water bursting through the fissures seem to suggest grief.

A painting of a vase bearing the image of a dark-skinned woman in a white dress kneeling at the shore of a body of water. Blue streams of water sprout from the body of the vase as if the structure has been pricked with pinholes.

Shantel Miller, Broken Vessel, 2020. 16 x 16 in. Graphite, colored pencil, and oil on panel. Photo courtesy of Anderson Yezerski Gallery.

Miller represents the image of her grandmother in Sybil (2024). In the vertical canvas, a Black woman stands tall and proud, smiling in a moment of quiet dignity. She holds a photograph of a waterfall, once again evoking the movement and splendor of nature. Standing in a church setting before a bold orange and red backdrop, she is a depiction of a female figure of religious faith. Incidentally, the name Sybil suggests a person who is a kind of seer or prophet, capable of predicting the future. Rivers of Water Flow from Her Belly (2024) imagines a woman sitting calmly, hands clasped against her stomach. Her face is lit by a broad smile, and the fabric of her turquoise shirt is wrinkled slightly, almost as if to gesture toward the rippling of water. In this private moment, Miller’s mother appears serene and comfortable in her physical self.

In the painting I’ve Been Trying to Reach You, an older woman is seated before a long dining room table, peering introspectively ahead, as if she is waiting for something. There is no one else visible in the room, a signal that she may be anticipating the arrival of someone to commune with. Throughout the paintings in the show, Miller calls attention to Black women in contemplation, often revealing something of their spiritual natures. By honoring these figures, she asserts their strength, as seen through the eloquence of their inner lives.

When considering the title of the exhibit, one is led to ask who Miller is trying to reach. In many ways, the show is about people striving to connect with one another, but it also touches on a wish to transcend, to relate to a higher power. Miller explains in her statement that the act of making is something that provides people with relief. Maybe this idea lends another dimension to the show: the process of creating art is a way that we reach people, and the painter herself is working to identify with a person on the other side of the canvas.

Shantel Miller’s “I’ve Been Trying to Reach You” is on view at the Anderson Yezerski Gallery through March 23.

Shira Laucharoen


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