“In Spirit + Structure”: Faith as Subject, Object, and Personal Identity at the Arts Incubator

In Nathan Miller’s first solo exhibition, “In Spirit + Structure,” currently on display at the Arts Incubator Gallery, the artist uses photography, sculpture, sound and installation to represent his relationship with faith.

By Lynn Chong

It is always a pleasant experience to walk into the Arts Incubator Gallery. A cozy corner space just across from the Garfield Green Line station, the venue welcomes the pedestrian with its glass walls, artworks, and sense of community. Walking by the gallery today, you will see Chicago-area artist Nathan Miller’s first solo exhibition, In Spirit + Structure. Using photography, sculpture, sound, and installation, Miller explores faith and his personal relationship with it. Throughout the exhibition, the Black Church serves as the subject and context through which Miller’s exploration is communicated.

The audience is welcomed into the gallery space by a direct view of a giant church fan—often given out to church members before the start of service. By enlarging this hand fan to a body-sized sculpture, Miller transforms the nostalgic item into a symbol of community, camaraderie, and tradition, bound together and preserved through shared faith. This meaning becomes twofold with a closer examination of the photo presented on the fan: two Black girls in pink dresses staring elegantly into the distance. It was a common practice for church fans to be decorated with images of upper-middle-class Black families as a symbol of hope.

Miller’s photography is amazingly intentional and tactile. “Communion Sunday” (2017), the cover image of the exhibition, is a photograph of Miller’s muse, a deacon at his church. Seemingly a simple portrait of this graceful lady, the image is strengthened by its detailed attention to the texture of the woman's purse, white dress, stockings, and hat. There is added drama as this monochromatic look is once again contrasted—as a whole—with the dark, brick backdrop. Together, the portrait becomes an expression of grace, strength, and resilience, as well as of Miller’s personal reverence for his muse.

Some works are harder to swallow than others. In “Glory” (2016), Miller explores the relationship between slavery and the Black Church. The presiding image is that of a house (perhaps a church building), with a circle on the top that is reminiscent of a halo. However, this architecture is seemingly erected upon horse or donkey legs standing on malleable, uneven ground. Simultaneously expressing a sense of rigidity and flexibility, Miller grapples with the irony and paradox imbued in the walk of faith. Similarly, “Elijah’s Church Marquee” (2017)—a handmade marquee dedicated to Miller’s friend who was shot—adds gravity to the exhibition by confronting the continuation of tragedy, even within the presence of faith and sacredness.

Nathan Miller’s ruminations on faith and the sacred is deeply philosophical, yet the personal reflections weaved within create an inviting aura that enable the viewer to emotionally and intellectually engage with the works. Despite his specific subject, Miller’s work does not isolate itself; instead, it creates a space for collective reflection and empathetic conversation.

In Spirit + Structure is open until November 22, 2019 at the Arts Incubator Gallery.