John Millei

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 For example, in the series of paintings For Surfing, I am using a historical reference to talk about something personal (the loss of a close friend in a surfing accident.)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.

Midnight Sombrero

Ben Spiers | Midnight Sombrero

by Harrison Pearce

 

Simply put, glimpsed in darkness, a sombrero worn at midnight probably isn’t quite right, probably; it demands a double take.

This is how Ben Spiers’ paintings perform, emerging from and receding into shadow. I’m never sure of what I’ve seen.

I’ve always found Ben’s paintings slippery; like how it might be if I dared to try and hold mercury – I won’t quite get hold of it, but if I could, I assume it will poison me, or destabilise my mind. And yet I still want to.

A double take is fast and slow, visceral and cognitive, upsetting, then…delightful? I remain unsure about that last part but feel confident that is how Ben likes it.

His paintings seduce and interrogate me with equal force, so I thought it best to just ask him about them, avoiding them to start with. We spoke for two hours. I learned a lot. I know nothing.

I had a hangover that day; Ben and I share the same birthday and we talked the day after. On reflection, I don’t know if the way I felt was the cause or effect of the trajectory of our chat but going through it felt just like looking at his work.

Ben nudges and teases the edges of thoughts and sentences in much the same way I imagine he gently coerces paint. The confluence of raw instinct and deliberate premeditation left me in a state of epistemic bankruptcy, after which I actually felt purged of my hangover. I felt lighter.

I share with Ben an appreciation for the giddy feeling of uncertainty, because saying, “I don’t know” is a ruthlessly honest and liberating admission. It’s exhilarating because a boat without a rudder just is more exciting. More than that, it’s crucial. Certainty and dogma run along a straight line. By contrast, Ben is a free-range thinker with a free hand.

None of this is to say he doesn’t know what he is doing. Instead, with a virtuosic hand that indiscriminately reaches across time, place, fiction and reality, Ben helps himself to familiar things, remaking them until they are not familiar at all, and you realise they never were. The relationship between signifier and signified is so vulnerable because it was only ever arbitrary. Ben excavates the indeterminacy of all things. With his brush he whispers to the prima materia, perhaps not knowing what form it will take in its reply. What I see in these paintings is the simultaneous confabulation and decomposition on which my perception of reality supervenes. And that is a reality that compelled us to discuss Will Ferrell, Copernicus, Penn and Teller, Wittgenstein, Philip Larkin, Hull, swamps and Mike from Breaking Bad in a concatenation that probably did make sense at the time.

I keep coming back to that duck-rabbit illusion, where you can never see both animals at the exact same moment, even though they both exist in the exact same ink. Ben’s paintings do something like that. For instance, in The eponymous work in the show, ‘Midnight Sombrero or Danae and Zeus’,

I might be seeing Barbara Streisand lending the chiaroscuro of golden age cinema but the pose also conjures the Ecstasy of St Teresa. The golden shower will doubtless elicit unsubtle fantasies only thrown off course by the title, should you choose to consult it: so, is it a bodily fluid or is it molten metal in the end? The painting will constantly assert and undermine an answer, never letting you take refuge in cognitive dissonance.

At a glance Ben might appear to be a polemicist. Sometimes I see a new painting and I marvel as much at his unadulterated skill as his willingness to run across very thin ice, underneath which dwells an abyss of unease: the body, gender, sexuality, race, class, cultural appropriation etc, etc, – controversy abounds. But Ben’s fancy footwork keeps him from the plunge. And it seems that if you find yourself in freefell you only have your own faulty perceptual apparatus to blame. Because nothing is quite what it seems.

Mössgron

Once when my son was very young, I asked him what he thought happened to people after they died. “They turn into tombstones,” he said quickly, as though it were a question too foolish for contemplation. It sounded logical enough that the evacuated body might simply be transfigured into something more permanent, something less vulnerable to pain and grief and time. Maybe the letters RIP replace the GAP logos that once emblazoned our t-shirts, maybe our shoes are cast off and our feet turned to stone, maybe our bodies mineralize and grow heavy so that we can be planted into the earth forever. “Poof,” I said to him, my fingers fanning open in the air. “Poof,” he said back. I did not tell him that I don’t want to be buried. I did not tell him that it seems to me that the person who decides to become a tombstone is asking for an eternity of neglect. 

Though I don’t specifically want to become an abandoned thing, I have long felt great affection for them. I love obsolete celebrities and hotels that have fallen out of fashion. I find incredible pleasure in leafing through 20 year old tabloids or tracking down rosters of prescription medication attributed to medicine chests of deceased socialites. I am thrilled by online auctions that traffic in the tacky cast-off clothing of forgotten rock stars, by ebay listings for half-empty jars of beauty cream that were purportedly once touched by starlets who died before I was born. These places are tombstones too, I suppose. They are the places that allow us to contemplate the narrow margin that delineates the ruin from the shrine. 

One of the great anxieties that inevitably adheres itself to us in life is the nagging promise that time will definitely Ctrl+Alt+Del us into oblivion. Eventually, the tombstones that mark our existence will themselves fall to ruin, choked by weeds and toppled to the ground by drunk teenagers who chain smoke and grope each other on the human-sized slices of grass that we’d once assumed were our permanent real estate. Moss will obscure our epithets, our names will disappear and birthdates recede, and all of it will collude to finally return us to the realm of abstraction.

Regardless of its tacky design, the popularity of the memorial website Legacy.com makes a lot of sense to me. If you want a final resting place that acknowledges your existence forever but does not require gardening or maintenance, the digital cemetery is probably the best place to go. Here your loved ones can make offerings of pixelated footballs or bouquets that never die, they can write notes and light virtual candles that will burn until the end of time. Never will there be any need for your descendants to clear away sun-bleached cans of Bud Light or fill in holes left by groundhogs or snakes—there is no earth here, only a glossy expanse of perpetually preserved memory drifting safely through the digital ether. 

The democratization of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s heralded a slew of new ways for information to be archived. Message boards and fan pages proliferated, forums and chat-groups dedicated to interests that ranged from the subcultural to the shameful sent up smoke signals to like-minded maniacs who dreamt of living in video games or of marrying Marilyn Manson. For a brief moment, it was as though everyone in the universe had opened their diaries to us, casting aside their dignity to submerge themselves in the waters of possibility. I have felt saddened in recent years to find that links to abandoned LiveJournals often dead end at error messages. I was devastated in 2018 when the bizarre regional gossip website, Topix, was shut down for good, all of its data burned to dust in the internet crematorium and thrown into the virtual sea. There are, however, surprises to be found. Websites that have no business existing in 2020 occasionally still bear fruit, the ghosts of 1999 continuing about their business unbothered by war or famine or disease, their crudely rendered graphics spinning and flashing away, as though the intervening years had been telescoped down to nothing. I have always thought of these sites as Internet Tombstones. I have always thought of them as proof that there are some things that don’t require transfiguration in order to find forever.

The vanity of needing to be remembered is a particularly human one, and to carve one’s name onto a stone in a cemetery or the wall of a hospital wing is an impulse of man, but not of nature. Last week when I was with my son in Maine, we walked past a nature preserve that is closed off from the street. We stopped to look through a small break in the fence at the lake and trees and granite formations that are largely hidden from view. “I always think of that as a place where the sun always shines,” he told me. “The birds are really happy and the water is always clear and it’s always summer and nothing ever changes because nothing ever happens.” I told him that we would never know, that we could never see for ourselves anything outside of the narrow section of landscape visible between the two slats. “I know,” he said. “People aren’t allowed there. That’s what makes it so nice.” 

– Alissa Bennett