Signs of the Times: John Mills

In Michaels Fried’s review of Michel Seuphor’s now criminally out of print 1963 book Abstract Painting: 50 Years of Accomplishment From Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock, Fried all but dismisses the very need for such a book, saying, "Whatever controversy it may once have provoked, abstraction per se is by now no longer a live issue.” An understandable stance, perhaps in 1963, near the beginning of one of the more recent bona fide canonical shifts in the history of art. Art is not fashion — but there has always been a fashionability to what kind of art is discussed as part of the current dialog. Human beings have always, and will always, seek to arrange, produce, and think with the more formalized 2D visual concepts; the relatively modern format and practice of painting has, for the last hundred years, been one of the primary sites of that inquiry. - Jason Ramos, Los Angeles Contributor

When taken at such a technically conceptual level, painting soon dovetails into an unpacking of language and perception in general, and it is quite genuinely and presently at this very abstract intersection that the work of John Mills, on its surface, finds itself. It builds upon and freely quotes some of European abstraction’s early efforts past Cubism (pre-1915 efforts of Kandinsky, Malevich, R. Delaunay, S. Delaunay, Kupka, Marc, Klee, others) and mid-century international developments that flourished under the names Art Informel, Tachisme, Abstract Expressionism, and others. Past that point in history, (of which Fried seemed to indicate was the present of 1963), the overall phenomenon that included the 50 years between Kandinsky and Pollock gave way to a far more pluralistic artistic landscape where the issue of abstraction in painting was no longer a “live issue”.

Indeed, the technology of the time was entitling new forms of image making and consumption to the general public; it seemed, as the story goes, painters making pictures, abstract, figurative or otherwise, wasn’t taken seriously again until a decade after considering Philip Guston’s 1970 Marlborough Gallery show. The technology of this time, of 2014, enables an instinct for visual quotation that is too pervasive to be ironic. John Mills’s paintings are not a parody, a send-up, or appropriations of abstract paintings — yet they are still visibly informed by an educated contextualizing that perhaps can be viewed as a show of support for the stances the early abstractionists held that informed their work.


John Mills | Creation Dome, 2014 Oil & graphite on canvas 78 x 78.jpg


John Mills | 
Gentle Land, 2013 Oil and graphite on canvas 36 x 36.jpg


John Mills | 
Identity Crisis, 2013 Oil and graphite on canvas 30 x 30.jpg


John Mills | 
High Anxiety, 2014 Oil and graphite on canvas 78 x 78.jpg

Mills's work in HIGH on SIGNS, his first solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, range from  earlier dense, jittery groupings on white to more recent larger, sparse arrangements on textured, worked-over grounds. There is a strict, specimen like presentation of the pictorial elements; in all of Mills's paintings, the darker marks appear to be on top of the white ground, whether it is gesso-clean or frenetically textured. In the latter these painted grounds offer a great deal of information, and create a flatter plane where the stage beneath consumes the marks and shapes above, only their faint traces visible. Space in these works is composed with thin marks and notations that try to come together to create vaguely familiar open forms and asemic-style writing scribbles. Each painting seems to have a sense of individual resolve, a holistic sense to each square – the marks come in sets, the palettes are succinct, the elements acknowledge the physical edge, the margin as an element is considered. Mills's process, not surprisingly, begins with drawing, and in many ways the paintings are attempts at transcribing these efforts.

In the more austere paintings the traditional drawing space of the white ground activates its painterly existence while at the same time stripping the foreground bits down to their drawn foundations. Despite the simplicity of the elements, memetic imagery attempts to coalesce and form, as if for the first time. Eyes, faces, leaves, bird-forms and more are suggested and caught by Mills and have brief flickers of illustrated life. These decisions reveal a self-awareness that contributes towards the spirit of intuitiveness behind the source drawings, as well as a manipulation of chance imagery in the transcription to canvas.


John Mills | 
Mass Reduction, 2013 Oil on canvas 78 x 78.jpg


John Mills | 
Maidstoned, 2013 Oil on canvas 54 x 54.jpg


Installation view

In an interview with Tim Forcum, Mills expressed an awareness of his style of abstraction having the immediately visible influence of the styles from an earlier age. The commitment to 'pure' abstraction in the second decade of the 20th century was an affront to the art world system of the time, especially “the academy”, art school. Many of the ideas of those abstractionists soon found a place in the academy, as the model put forward by faculty of the Bauhaus in Germany and the Vkhutemas in Russia became foundational ideas for today's art school curriculums. Though art school has certainly evolved from there (with a relationship to painting in general that is worthy of debate in its own right) much of its structure and divisions are based on ideas put forth by individuals religiously committed to the highest ideals of utopian modernism. Part of these artists' own practice, the visual ritual of this commitment, was, in Mills's words, to “represent the ephemeral nature of consciousness and existence.”

In this current age of abstract painting, we know too much to be as spiritual and utopian about it, yet the questions asked and the methods of their answering still bear fruit intellectually, psychologically, culturally, politically, etc. Furthermore, the frame of nostalgia allows for these paradigms to bring dense conceptual flavors to the party. It is a safe assumption to believe that if the elements in Mills’s paintings are derived at least partially unconsciously, that the thinking, art educated mind and hand of Mills has processed and recognized the historical reasons for and provenance of his style of abstraction.


John Mills | 
Minefountain, 2012 Oil on canvas 20 x 20.jpg


John Mills | 
Modern Kiss, 2014 Oil and graphic on canvas 78 x 78.jpg


John Mills | 
Tasty Frieze, 2014 Oil and graphite on canvas 54 x 54.jpg

Installation view

A case for painting being a site for unpacking nostalgia is not difficult.  Taking the Italian Reniassance as the beginning of painting as we know it today, they were nostalgic for the time of Christ, of ancient Greece and Rome, of the non-Western world, on through the Baroque, Neo-Classical, and Romantic periods.  If Modernism began with Realism, then it was nostalgia it sought to overcome.  It stands to reason that the post-modern sentiment would be a reactive reclaiming and re-envisioning of the past.  The current state of abstraction in painting can be viewed as a synthesis of both strategies – overcoming nostalgia by taking advantage of what it connotes. 

Mills's paintings forge a future that is mined from history.  The reasons for their resonance is connected to the reasons behind the work of those important, immediate post-Cubist years in Europe.  Perhaps more importantly, Mills's work illuminates a contemporary relevance in regards to more formalist picture-making within the painting format.  This relevance is not unconnected to abstract paintings comfortable (and oft-critiqued) place in the current art market. But the latter, one could uncynically say, is because of the former, not the other way around.  

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All photos by Grant Mudford, courtesy of Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

Jason Ramos is an artist, curator, and writer based in Los Angeles.  He earned an MFA  in painting from Cal State Fullerton in 2007.  He is the current director of Eastside International and former assistant curator of the Torrance Art Museum.  His art work has been included in numerous exhibitions in Los Angeles and beyond. 

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