A South California native, John Millei has been a central figure on the Los Angeles art scene for decades. A long-time Adjunct Professor of Painting at Claremont Graduate University and Professor of Fine Art at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, his teaching has had a profound impact on generations of contemporary artists. His former students include Mark Bradford, Laura Owens and later Sterling Ruby and Doug Aitken among many others.
Millei made a conscious decision to remain in California rather than gravitating to New York in the 1980s and has lived and worked between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara ever since.
Largely self-taught and the former studio assistant of Richard Diebenkorn, Millei began painting in the late 1970s. He was influenced by Jasper Johns’s iconic series 0 through 9 (1960) and the Abstract Expressionist paintings of John Altoon, a prominent figure in the LA art scene of the 1950s and 1960s.
He is part of a generation of artists that includes Lari Pittman, Roger Herman and later Mary Weatherford, Mark Bradford and Laura Owens, who were responsible for shifting Los Angeles painting away from the cool slick minimalism of the Space and Light group, towards a more painterly and promiscuous kind of painting that trafficked in the space between figuration and representation, pop culture and Abstract Expressionism.
“We are the generation right after Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Charles Bukowski who grew up on punk rock and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. We were more interested in the seedy side of Los Angeles and Hollywood, not the cool, clean-finish, fetish, ‘beach boys’ art of the Light and Space artists,” John Millei explains.
“My practice is about dancing in the liminal space between the public or historical and the private or personal. For example, in the series of paintings For Surfing, I am using a historical reference to talk about something personal (the loss of a close friend in a surfing accident.) The Girl with Bow paintings are portraits of my daughter, as much as they are playing with cartoons and Picasso.”
In the 1990s, John Millei began exhibiting at the influential Ace Gallery in Los Angeles. Originating in Vancouver, Ace Gallery opened in Los Angeles in 1967 and was an important presence there, showing Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell amongst others.
He is an artist whose visual vocabulary knows no bounds. He plays with images and subject matter that have functioned as motifs in the canon of art history since time immemorial, subjects so familiar to us that they have become almost banal: the seascape, the flower, Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, Cezanne’s Bathers and so on.
However, the motifs, genres or subjects themselves only function as a point of departure for his imagination; what truly interests him is how he can playfully re-invent and subvert these icons, with his finely tuned sense of the absurd and his mastery of paint and scale.
Growing up in the California of the 1970s, the image of the flower was ubiquitous, co-opted by surfer dudes, with their vans covered in goofy flower stickers, by the hippy movement and in the protests against the Vietnam War as a symbol of pacifism.
‘Flower Power #2 (for V. V.)’, (1993), is a majestic, schematic painting which uses the windmill, specifically the plastic toy version of the windmill and its superficial similarity to the form of the flower, as its absurdist point of departure. It became one of the first in his ongoing series of deliberately cartoon-esque, hyperbolic paintings that function also as an exploration of the flower’s obviously erotic potential. He chose the title ‘If Flowers Could Dream’ (2001) for a monumental painting from that series, as he said if they could dream “they would dream of pornography, which is a hyperbolic, exaggerated version of reality.”
Millei creates abstract re-workings of iconic paintings that have been transformed into signs by mechanical reproduction. The point of departure for Millei’s ‘The Real Life of Flowers’ (2002) is the black-and-white cartoonish flowers by American Post-Conceptual artist Christopher Wool, in turn a replay of Andy Warhol’s silk-screened Flowers.
Interested in the separation between the image and its meaning, Millei re-stages the kitsch irony of Warhol and Wool’s flowers into exaggerated and absurdly large, trippy abstracted compositions.
A devoted surfer, Millei’s iconic ‘For Surfing’ (2001-2) and ‘Maritime’ (2004-07) paintings apply the experience of surfing onto the canvas. A homage to a friend who died in a surf accident, ‘For Surfing’ depicts the sea at its primal state, powerful and fierce.
Re-staging and subverting the iconography of the sea as depicted in the Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Théodore Géricault, Millei reinvents the apocalyptic motif to give it new life in his own abstraction.
Millei was profoundly struck by the method of constructing water from the Medieval Apocalypse Tapestry (1377-1382), using the frame of the painting as a device to compress the space and bring tension to the waterline. As the artist describes: “You are more in the water, than looking at the sea, there is no horizon point. The paintings function as being consumed by the water”.
John Millei’s play with the tropes of art history is not limited to flowers and the sea.
In the series ‘Woman in a Chair’ (2009) Millei re-stages Picasso’s celebrated Portrait de femme (Dora Maar) (1938). However these paintings are not concerned per se with Picasso nor with his subject Dora Maar, but serve as a point of departure for Millei’s exploration of his own stylistic evolution. In his series of large-scale game-playing with this leitmotif of 20th century art, the elasticity of his painterly skill is given free reign, stretching the original structure of Picasso’s composition using every conceivable artistic conceit: colour, form, minimalism, abstraction and so on.
“Millei’s relationship with the past is symbiotic rather than parasitic: he gives it the only authentic life it can have in the present. Turning known artistic territory into a terra incognita of abstraction, he restores art’s existential mystery.” Donald Kuspit.
Born in Los Angeles in 1958, John Millei lives and works in Santa Barbara. In addition to his Professorship at the Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA from 1991 to 2015 and at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA from 1987 to 2017, he was also Adjunct Professor at the Southern California Institute Of Architecture (Sci-Arc), Los Angeles, CA from 1995 to 2000 and has served as visiting Professor at several renowned universities in California, including the Otis College of Art and Design.
Millei has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco; Lowell Ryan Projects, Los Angeles; Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami; Galerie PCP, Paris; Ace Gallery, New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico; and Marc Jancou Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland.
John Millei’s works can be found in the following public collections: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, CA; The Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts (AFGA), San Francisco; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Velan Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea, Turin; Colección Jumex, Mexico City; and Dib Bangkok Museum, Thailand.