Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bill Miller

A. Bill Miller: Samples from the Gridworks Collection Project Archives

November 15, 2009 – January 10, 2010

Press Release | Images | Essay | Resume


A. Bill Miller is currently an Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and an Instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He lives and works in East Troy, Wisconsin. He is noted for his Gridworks Project, which comprises abstract ASCII drawings, ink drawings, animated GIFs, and video which are frequently shown in the U.S. and internationally.

Some Walls is pleased to exhibit twelve of Miller’s inkjet prints, with additional prints available for viewing. This is Miller’s first solo exhibition in California. Additional ASCII drawings can be seen on Miller’s blog, and more images, animations, and video are at his website.

A. Bill Miller’s ASCII drawings are made at the keyboard with text– characters and letters. He draws/types grid-based and grid-defying images that are surprisingly varied and dynamic, pictorial and spatial, rhythmic and dynamic. As writing has overwhelmingly moved from the pen to the keyboard and monitor, it also makes sense that drawing might make a similar move from the pencil. By making prints, Miller transports his images from the flickering, pixilated digital realm to our analog, tactile world of paper and ink. Seeing his drawings outside the monitor is an entirely different experience from online viewing; where the digital image scrolls by intangibly, the art work as object allows the viewer to see and contemplate a crisp, satisfyingly still, human-scaled image. In these prints one can fully assess Miller’s range of ideas, visual invention, and unique skill.

Some Walls is open by appointment only. To view the exhibition online please visit To schedule a visit, or for more information, please contact Chris Ashley at



A. Bill Miller makes drawings with ASCII text. What does that mean?

Just as writing has overwhelmingly moved from pen to the keyboard, it makes sense that drawing has made a similar move from the pencil to the mouse. Prior to the mouse and paint programs, however, users made computer drawings with the keyboard. In the earliest days of computers and the Internet, before image files and the Web, everything was text, and images were made using ASCII text characters[1], most often as email signatures. Anyone who has had an email account for some time has likely seen an ASCII image, but the chances of that have decreased since Web browsers began displaying JPEGs and GIF, which eventually led to the ubiquity of graphics embedded in emails. The earliest ASCII images in emails were typically relatively simple patterns of characters surrounding inspiring quotes, information about the sender, and simple graffit-like figures on the order of "Kilroy was here[2]." Eventually a kind of underground of more complex ASCII art[3] emerged, most commonly replicating photos and cartoon characters from popular culture. In the rapidly-paced history of the Internet, ASCII images, an medium over forty years old, is not merely old school, but decidedly archaic.

Little truly original art has been made with ASCII, much less images that aspire to being rich, serious, and resonant art that is visually and conceptually meaningful, has a relationship to art history, and which bears repeated viewing. Additionally, serious abstract art in ASCII is especially rare. One exception is the painter Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009), who in 1969 in Albuquerque produced a too little-known series of seventy two ASCII computer prints[4]. A more recent exception is A. Bill Miller, who in addition to his ink drawings, animated GIFs, videos, and performances, has for some time produced a varied, compelling, and growing corpus of ASCII drawings that explores a range of pictorial ideas, associative qualities, and visual complexity. Rather than ASCII being a little detour in his production, such as with Hammersley, Miller’s ASCII drawings are central to his art.

Truman Capote accused Jack Kerouac of a kind of lifeless Beat prolixity when he said about On the Road, "That’s not writing, it’s typing." Somewhat similarly, one might say that a ASCII drawing is simply typing, too. But of course, just as Capote was wrong, assumptions about what drawing is tend to be too narrow. Drawing is a peculiarly flexible word, concept, and practice; one needs merely to think of using a stick in sand, lengths of tape on a wall, or a finger against a fogged window to see the possibilities for drawing. In Miller’s hands text becomes a truly descriptive and elegant drawing medium capable of great expression, delicacy, and impact.

An ASCII drawing is basically a text document, a grid-based field of horizontally and vertically distributed characters and spaces. Of course, the grid is thought of as the epitome of modernist structure. Land is often subdivided in grid-like plots, as are cities and suburbs. Newspapers and magazines layouts are grid-based, and ledgers and databases, too. The grid in modern and contemporary art is practically a cliché, supposedly representing or alluding to reason and order, ideal and purity. But Miller manages to draw/type grid-bound images that are firmly grid-defying. The grid is shifted, tweaked, and twisted line by line into surprisingly compositions that are pictorial and spatial, rhythmic and dynamic, varied and engaging.

Still, when normally confronted with text we want to read it, scanning from left to right, in an effort to make sense and understand the characters before us. But Miller’s relatively small visual vocabulary of dashes, underscores, forward and back slashes, equals and plus signs, resist literary reading. The thing to be read, or rather, seen, is an image. Our curiosity about the phonetics of the keyboard symbols may remain, like Concrete Poetry, and it is possible that this adds a layer of experience, meaning, flavor, or color to Miller’s drawing, But ultimately, any kind of lingual relationship or interpretation is resisted. What remains is strictly visual: verticals, horizontals, and diagonals; pattern and interruption; density and empty space; line and form; structure and flow.

Naturally, Miller frequently posts his ASCII drawings on his blog[5]; it might seem logical that art in this medium remains solely within an environment where it can be easily requested and delivered to a Web browser for viewing on anyone’s monitor. But Miller takes an important next step: by making prints, he transports his images from the flickering and pixilated digital realm into our analog, tactile world, reified in paper and ink. Seeing his drawings outside the monitor is a markedly different and important experience; while digital images scroll by almost intangibly in daily rushes of groups and fragments framed by the browser window and the monitor, the art work as a standalone, real object allows the viewer to see and contemplate a crisp, satisfyingly still, human-scaled imag. Hanging a group of prints on a wall allows for comparison and contrast. In these prints, seen in our space of light, air, distance, and intimacy, we note each image’s graphic quality, presence, and associative qualities, and the fully assess Miller’s range of ideas, visual invention, and unique skill.

For example:

  • 0178 is a spare, rugged landscape of filled and empty spaces defined by horizontal and vertical lines: a crusty trunk; an arid rippling mirage hundreds in the distance; a secret entry; two structures, one close and one far away..
  • 0134 alludes to where floor meets wall: conveyor belt-like torrent of slashes and pipes flow parallel to the floor, bend, turn, and seep back at the bottom of the baseboard, while another stream of slashes and pipes pour down the wall, run across the floor, and skitter, bounce, and drop off into the foreground.
  • gridworks2000-blogdrawings-collage-01 lays out an elaborate design for a secret weapon or spacecraft; diagrams a sophisticated home entertainment system; outlines a very complicated family tree; captures a dense supply chain or business practice.
  • gridworks2000-blogdrawings-collage33 is an accumulation of dashes, slashes, and pipes made by capturing a drawing, creating several layers of the same drawing Photoshop, coloring the text, and misregistering the layers to produce: an ecstatic red and blue Tron-like schematic; an atomic or celestial starburst; a decorated chamber with a center aisle that initiates must walk towards a powerful, light-filled enlightenment.
  • gridworks2000-blogdrawings-collage38 is a side view of a Tibetan sand painting; a vibrating cross-section of a multi-storied building; a saturated, hairy, pulsating, organic, energy-producing machine churning at maximum production.

And so on. The descriptions above are little tastes of what these images make possible, yet there is still more to discover.

The ASCII drawings are an important component of Miller’s Gridworks Project, and it is interesting to widen our view of this project by looking at another component, his ink drawings, which also incorporate multiple approaches to the grid. Hand drawn, the ink drawings introduce even more variations through wobbly and wonky, fast and slow lines, all doing their part to work with and go beyond the grid. While not restricted to the columns and rows of text, the ink drawings are evidence of Miller’s overall vision, project, and consistency. Scanned and printed at the same scale of his ASCII prints, the ink drawings confirm the broad scope and deliberateness of Miller’s work.

More examples:

  • gridworks2000-0028 contains an aerial and a street view of a rickety sidewalk or fence, which puts the viewer at a distance over which we view an urban street where a large Buckminster Fuller-like public structure looms over the floor plan of a domestic building of individual but inter-connected units.
  • gridworks2000-0011 shows a radial array of dots exploding beyond a rectangular boundary which fails to contain them; an aerial plan for crops; a diagram for irrigation or digging a network of tunnels; a unraveling crocheted ziggurat tipped over on its side.
  • gridfont5-mobydick_page_001 is a dense build up of open and closed rectangles form paragraphs of unexplainable code; an unplanned but organically ordered urban development; decomposing language, crumbling and falling apart leaving all meaning lost; the electric hum of energy coursing through uncountable channels, dwellings, and appliances.

Despite Miller’s spare chosen media and deceptively simple vocabulary, observations and associations like those above are possible because his drawings are knowingly crafted and visual; the conceptual aspects of his work are subservient to the visual aspects: seeing before ideas, ideas supporting seeing. Drawing is a primary act, a foundation, proof of concept, execution, and value. It is fortunate that Miller has found a medium that he can push beyond what it was intended to do, that is relevant and meaningful in contemporary art practice, and with which he can thrive and connect to the other branches of his oeuvre.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
November 2009

[1] American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Wikipedia.
[2] Kilroy was here. Wikipedia.
[3] ASCII art. Wikipedia.
[4] Frederick Hammersley’s computer prints. Artnet.

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