whitehot | February 2012: In Conversation with Mitch Miller
Mitch Miller: Natural Selection
Joe Heaps Nelson: OK, Mitch Miller is getting ready for a BIG SHOOOOW at Accola Griefen Gallery! Mitch, I see some paintings that are hung off scrolls, and a big sculpture hanging from the ceiling, and some little sculptures, which are going to be installed on pedestals. Why don't
Mitch Miller: OK. There are 2 types of work here, the scroll paintings, and the sculpture. They are closely related in terms of my technique and my approach, and they are related in terms of the place they are made. I live up on Bobcat Mountain.
Heaps: Bobcat Mountain!
Miller: Bobcat Mountain, in Colorado. It's situated in Roosevelt National Forest. I essentially have a million and a half acre backyard that I get to play around in. One of the reasons I moved to Bobcat Mountain is because the work I do in terms of sculpture involves archery. It involves other people coming and shooting at the work. When I was doing my studio practice in Brooklyn, every time I did this I had to get permits, or risk getting in trouble with the man, and it just became cost prohibitive. Now that I live on Bobcat Mountain, I can make these sculptures with the intention of having other people come and shoot them, and put them out in the forest. I have people shoot at them from all different distances. I've noticed since I do live up in these mountains there are a lot of people who hunt, and they bring their own bows and arrows, and are very skilled. I really enjoy working with these people because they understand the process, and they help me make these sculptures, the ones that are going to be on pedestals.
Heaps: Because the ones on pedestals are made out of pieces that are broken off the hanging sculptures, which you shoot at?
Miller: Exactly. I make the hanging sculptures so they spin on one axis, so as the arrows hit them and they become moving targets. That also adds to the randomness of this. I call the sculptural work Natural Selection. The reason is, I take a target, and abstract it, and that becomes the object of the day's events. What happens is, other people, with different skill sets and backgrounds, come and shoot at these large targets I have made. I make these targets with the intention of them being blown apart by the arrows.
Heaps: Mitch, I think we should explain that the sculptures are made out of styrofoam.
Miller: Yes. They are made from high density polystyrene that I reclaim from construction sites.
Heaps: Is there an armature inside?
Miller: There is not. It's all just foam. Pieces that I smashed up and poured acid on. Basically what I do is find the foam in waste bins at construction sites, and because it's all broken into pieces, that from the very git-go starts to dictate the forms that are going to come out.
Heaps: There's a nice, random quality to the way the pieces are broken apart.
Miller: Yup. The reason I started making these sculptures and so on, is I always, always have loved Jackson Pollack. One of the things I loved
Heaps: I've shot your sculptures before, and you made a map of where the sculpture was hit, and we made drawings based on that.
Miller: We did do that. What we were doing there is also coming with a finished product that's a documentation of natural selection forces on the target. In that case, we broke the target into different planes, and as the planes went back in space, we plotted on transparencies where each arrow hit, and all participants were invited to connect the dots, yet none of the dots had numbers on them, so we wound up with drawings that were made by 5 people that had the same foundation, they had the target we shot, the maps were identical, but however it is people chose to connect the dots became the documentation and each of the drawings was entirely different. Those are the first pieces I was doing with this, because I hadn't polished my process, I was still working through the details on what best way to document this action, without it being photography, what way to have an actual artifact that was left over.
Heaps: And there was film. This was all happening in Mitch's backyard in Williamsburg.
Miller: Yep, my old studio in Brooklyn. We filmed it, because it becomes an event where people are having a really good time, and there's a lot going on. It's super duper dynamic and fun to watch. The only problem with that for me was, OK, people come over, we have the shootout, and then it's done. Then what? The people who were there get to have the experience and remember it and so on, but how could I work to come up with an artifact from that that was art-related and could give people an idea of the energy level at any of these shooting sessions? The natural progression for that was to go into sculpture. As you remember, Heaps, when we would shoot at these things, the pieces that would fly off are really interesting pieces. Especially when you get a whole bunch of them together, the natural progression was to start piling them and making these gestural sculptures, the gesture relating to the shooting of the arrows, the pieces relating to the skill sets of the different archers. When I have people shooting at my work who are hunters, they can actually pick a point on the sculpture and knock it off. I'm starting to learn from these people that the process of me making these sculptures is even more out of my hands, since they know what pieces they can knock off, they start aiming for those, and in their heads, they're already constructing the sculpture. It's fun, I've started including some of them in the process of making the work. They'll shoot off a piece and get mostly what they want, but inevitably it's not exactly what they were envisioning, so there's this tension between me and the shooters. Where do we place this piece to make this sculpture? Sometimes that tension comes out in the work as well.
Heaps: What about the paintings, Mitch?
Miller: OK, the paintings are all in scroll format, like a Japanese or Chinese scroll painting. I do them all in black, white and red. One of the reasons is because those are the colors people respond to the strongest. You can trace it back to the rods and cones in our eyes developing. Black, white and red are the first colors we see. From there, you can look into ancient scroll paintings, especially the scroll paintings that were made for emperors and so on. A lot of those scroll paintings were done in black, white and red because of the power of those colors when they are combined. They're all influenced by where I live, up on Bobcat Mountain. Up on Bobcat Mountain I see evidence of natural selection all the time. I have elk running through my yard, I have bobcats that sleep on my porch. I see hunts go down. There's a mountain lion that stores all its dead deer parts up in the tree at the end of my driveway.
Heaps: You had bears under the house for a little while, didn't you?
Miller: I had bears, I'm not exactly sure where they stay. I like them very much. It's funny, I kind of see myself becoming a part of the evolutionary process up there because on 3 separate occasions I've had a bear in the middle of the night break into my car and eat all of my pickles.
Heaps: Why do you keep them in your car?
Miller: I live so far away from the grocery store, about 65 miles away, sometimes I come home late at night, and I just think I'll take the groceries out tomorrow. I just leave 'em in the car. It's the funniest thing, you go out and your windows are smashed, your wallet and your cell phone are still there, there's a smashed jar of pickles. That bear's got in there and had a good time.
Heaps: A bear doesn't have any use for your credit cards, or your cash, or cell phone.
Miller: Definitely not. They must eat some of the glass too. I don't know, because the jar is definitely not intact by the time they're done with it.
Heaps: I suppose you could monitor the scat.
Miller: I guess you could. That could be your job, Heaps. So, with these paintings, I'm trying to bring in the idea of Natural Selection, not on a Jackson Pollack level, I'm definitely in control of these from the very git-go.
Heaps: Jackson Pollack was in control of his work, too.
Miller: Yeah, I've got about the same amount of control. I could analogize my process with that, I do every one of these paintings in layers, I start with black, then move to red, into white, and I keep repeating that. I'll do about 15 of the first layers completely blindfolded. I'll put the canvases on the wall, get it gessoed, then close my eyes, and go berserk. Sometimes it's way more than 15 times. I keep doing that until this sort of landscape starts to manifest itself out of my actions. Then I'll start stepping back and looking, and bringing out different details and so on. If you look at all this work, it has this feeling that there's a blizzard going on in a lot of them. That's where my process for this started. I got caught in a whiteout on my way home, and I was completely blind, so I had to stop the car and wait for the whole thing to finish, and the mountains started appearing through the blizzard, and it was just one of those awe inspiring, gorgeous moments, and I thought to myself, how can I take this experience, and build upon it? OK, well, what's going on? I couldn't see, and then when I could see, there were a lot of mountains. So I started painting these with my eyes closed, until, eventually some mountains start to come out of them. Once I get the mountain scene established, I then go in and add an architectural element. This goes back to my love of scroll paintings. Scroll paintings are the reason I love art. When I was little, I would go with my folks to museums, and I'd go straight to the scroll paintings, and what I would always want to do is find the little house perched right up on the waterfall, or in the most awesome place you could possibly live, and I would stare at that little house and project myself into it and live up there. Now I live up on Bobcat Mountain, my studio up there is a dream, it's big, and outdoors, and indoors, for me now, I can make my own scroll paintings, and put my studio in them, and be right in there.
Heaps: You get lonesome up there?
Miller: I used to get lonesome up there, but it turns out I got a lot of really awesome neighbors, and we started meeting each other and we're getting along really well. Some of my neighbors your readers might know, the band the Ozric Tentacles. They are a prog rock band from England that started in 1983, and they still tour widely around the world all the time. Right now, for example, they're in St. Petersburg, and then in Moscow, doing their prog rock stuff. We became friends because their cat kept coming over and we kept returning their cat, and it turns out they have a lot of plants in their basement that I started taking care of when they're out of town. One of the times they came back from tour not so long ago, they said, "Hey Mitch, do you know this guy Damien Hirst?" I said, "Yeah, I know who Damien Hirst is. I kind of like his work. He's a great artist." They said, "We can't stand that twat. He's the hugest follower of us. Everywhere we play a show. He dresses up, sometimes like a woman, all he wants to do is sneak backstage and hang out with us, and we cannot stand him." So we kind of joke around, we're plotting a little thing here. They kind of don't know this part of it, but I'm going to contact Damien Hirst and let him know where they live, which is also funny, because the reason they moved up to Bobcat Mountain is to get away from their fans in England who wouldn't ever leave them alone.
Heaps: So they moved to Bobcat Mountain just to get away from Damien Hirst?
Miller: Yeah, and folks like him. I think it would be fun to let Damien Hirst know where they live, and when he comes up to start stalking them, maybe I could kidnap him, and tattoo my name on his butt, and put him back out in the art world as my piece.
Heaps: So you're inspired by traditional Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings.
Miller: Yeah, and Tibetan and Nepalese. As a matter of fact, the Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings are the first ones that as a kid I was introduced to, but then at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I was in an Asian art class and became captivated by Thangka paintings, which are scroll paintings that Tibetan monks do. They are landscape scroll paintings, but the central figure is a deity, an actual god or goddess, in the Buddhist or the Hindu religion. The Hindus and Buddhists both do Thangka paintings, and they actually, miraculously, look very similar, which has always been interesting to me. They also use a lot of red, black and white.
Heaps: Is the similarity because they come from the same tradition?
Miller: Well they don't, the religions are completely different, and they've been separated by the Tibetan plateau for all these years.
Heaps: I just mean do they come from the same visual tradition.
Miller: Yeah, the scroll paintings that the Tibetans and Nepalese do are on silk rather than canvas. The reason they depict a deity is because people pray to these deities, and what you're doing when you make a Thangka painting is you're making a visual prayer. One of the reasons I love these paintings is in our art world, everyone wants to sign their name to something, but with these Thangka paintings, you're very discreet, you don't tell anyone that's what you're doing, you do the painting in a very specific order. It's a very ritualistic style of painting, so everything is done in a certain order, in order to make a perfect painting. The reason you want the painting to be perfect is because once you get it done, you sneak in the middle of the night to a monastery and you hang it on the wall on top of all the other Thangka paintings that are there, and it's anonymous, and the idea is once it hangs in that monastery, the prayer that you painted is being put out into the universe until that Thangka painting decays. I walked with my buddy Zach from Lhasa to Katmandu, and it took us months, it was crazy, and where we stayed was in monasteries the whole way. Some of these monasteries were so far up in the mountains, and so hard to see, you'd have to look at a cliff wall for a long time, then, oh, there it is, and you'd have to climb up these crazy 300 foot ladders up the side of a cliff, and knock on a hatch door, and some monk would open it up and hand you a fig, and be like, "Come on in," but not in English, with gestures, so you'd go in these monasteries, and we had the best time! It was like a time capsule. The first Thangka painting you'd see was maybe one that someone in the monastery completed that day, but they went back, some of them, over a thousand years. As these paintings are laid one on top of each other, they become these very thick, padded rooms that are just filled with thousands of paintings. On top of that, they're always burning yak butter candles, so this yak butter wax stuff is in the atmosphere the whole time, and it starts to coat these Thangka paintings. So they're yellow and kind of greasy, but it's not a grease that has acids in it, so these paintings, as far as I can tell, are probably going to be preserved forever. So, whoever painted those paintings a thousand years ago, they are long gone, but their prayer is still radiating out into the universe. That's the kind of thing they're into.
So when I did my Thangka painting, my friend Zach and I found a house full of men in the outskirts of Katmandu, and that's all they did. They slept on the floor, there were 25 of them in this little house. They'd sleep right next to their canvas, and wake up in the morning and they would put this strange mixture of something white, something blue and something brown in the palm of their hand and turn it into a little ball like a jawbreaker, and just start eating on that, and put their canvas in their lap sitting Indian style, and just paint all day long. So we found these people. We found the house. It took us months because it's the Third World, and there's no advertising, and no one even knows what you're talking about, ever. Through gesture and so on, we indicated that we wanted to learn to do this. Part of the way this whole Buddhist Thangka painting is, and the way the monks are, is if you're interested, then they're obliged to do it. So we got the message across, and they immediately put us to work grinding up yak hooves, making glue, stretching the silk, smashing minerals, and making paints and so on, and eating this blue, white, brown stuff, it's called khaine. The very first day we were there Zach and I got this khaine, and it blows your head off almost. You feel like you're on fire, and you go completely numb, and you start seeing spots before your eyes. It floored us for the first 3 days, so we just laid around in the yard in the sun, sweating. We'd been eating local food for months and months, so we were nice and sick, so now we're nice and sick, and hot and hallucinating.
Once we finally pushed through that, they really started putting us to work. While you work, someone in the house is watching you, who's gonna become your teacher. You don't know who it is, but after a while they tap you out. It's now time to work on your painting. They assign you the deity you're going to paint. the deity I got was Avalokiteshvara. And so, I started painting the deity! Everything is super duper ritualistic and formulaic with these paintings. You paint with a 1 or 2 bristle brush, so you're dipping your brush in and making 1 little dot and dipping your brush in and making 1 little dot. It takes forever. My Thangka painting took me 4 months, but it took me 2 tries to paint it. I was working on the piece, and about 2 months into it, for no reason, my teacher came and cut my canvas off my stretcher, ripped it to pieces and shook his head. That's when I learned the importance of these being perfect, because one imperfection radiating in the universe for a thousand years becomes a big problem I suppose! So I started over again. I went through the whole motion. You start with the sky. There's no creative license on these at all, except for the clouds. You have to have 3 clouds, but they can be whatever color you want. That's the only variance on all this. Which I always thought was cool, because the sky is very important to the Tibetans. They do the sky burial; they don't bury people in the ground, they put 'em on top of a high mountain and the birds take 'em and feed 'em to the sky. So I thought that was kind of neat, it showed, for me, this underlying theme of compassion which runs throughout Buddhism, with its strict rules. But the coolest thing about the Thangka painting process is when you bring the deity to life, which is the last step. They believe that if you are looking it straight in the face when you bring it to life, it could be so powerful that it could kill you, so you have to hold a mirror up, and over your shoulder, through the mirror, backwards, you have to paint the eyeballs in. That took me about a week. Not because it took me a week to do it, but I had to practice on another canvas, like having a little mark, the distance of the eyes, and how big they were, to where I could teach my brain to go right when I was thinking left, or go left when I was thinking right. It was so super difficult. Especially when you're on the khaine, and your head's spinning. But we did it!
Heaps: You got to paint the eyeballs, looking into a mirror.
Miller: Yep, the painting is behind you, it's at your back. And you're holding a mirror up, like you're at a barber shop, looking at the back of your head. Then you position your brush over your shoulder, even to learn depth perception, and so on, through the reverse eyes, it was darn difficult.
Heaps: So now, can you shave the back of your neck?
Miller: I guess I could!
Heaps: Mitch, tell me about the project you did at Show World.
Miller: OK, that's a blast from the past. That was fun. Gosh, when was that? I guess back in 2000. Giuliani passed laws that required strip clubs and such joints to get 60% or more of their revenue from sources other than porn and stripping. So, with my friend Rafaele Shirley, and another guy, Aaron Bell, we approached Show World, on 42nd and 8th. We gave them the idea to take some of the private stages and turn them into small theaters, and they have 2 really wacky foyers in their space there, it's a huge strip club. It's like 7 stories tall. On 2 different floors they had these great foyers, that were big, they were probably 1200 and 1500 square feet. They had mirrored ceilings, and sequined tiles, and black walls, it was really kind of crazy. We left it just like it was and we turned those 2 spaces into galleries where I started curating shows. It was a way for me to get friends to come have a show in a funky place. We also took all the porn that was in the peep show booths and replaced 168 channels of porn with 168 channels of video art, and you could use Show World tokens, drop 'em in, and you could go through a catalogue of video art in these little kiosks. That project actually evolved into PAM, which is the Perpetual Art Machine, which a lot of your readers have probably seen at
Heaps: What did the strippers think about all this?
Miller: The strippers, I don't know, we didn't interact with them that much. I don't know if they minded.
Heaps: Well you could blame it all on Giuliani anyway.
Miller : Exactly. It was fun, it was a great idea, we had a really good time. We spent about 4 months doing all these renovations, and getting stage props in, we had actors running around rehearsing lines all over the place, and while this was going on the Show World people were really excited. They thought they were going to start making a lot of money. What we basically found out is that Show World was owned by 12 World War II buddies. They were cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, hardcore Mafia, and they were from New York, and they used Show World as a way to pay the mortgages on all the real estate they had all up and down the East Coast. Show World was pulling in around $120,000 on a bad night every single night of the year. Some nights they'd make way more. So they had a lot of overhead. And we also learned that these guys were fairly wealthy. Their idea of going to a show was going and seeing the producers, and sitting in the front row. Their idea of getting art for the bathroom was go to Gagosian, pay a 100 g's for something and stick it on the wall. That really was the life they were living, and they thought that was going to happen with this gallery situation we were setting up. We butted heads with them all the time, explaining to them you guys are a strip club. It's gonna take a while before people trust in the artists that we're showing as being a good investment and so on. You're gonna have to work with it. Long story short, we weren't making them nearly $100,000 a night, and they started holding past due bills over our head, of millions of dollars, air conditioning bills for like $70,000 for all their strip clubs everywhere, and really demanding that we do something, or this isn't gonna last. Then I was in Colorado visiting, this is right after the Scope Art Fair had its very first after party at Show World, we had strippers and Victoria's Secret models serving drinks, it was super rad and everyone was having a crazy good time. We thought, OK, after this party, the owners are going to realize that we've got something here. But, that also went right over their heads. I went out to Colorado to decompress, do some snowboarding, and as I was flying back on the airplane I started getting calls from them that I had 20 minutes to get out of the building. When I finally landed I got a phone call from one of the head honchos at Show World and he said your stuff is out on the curb, we are done with any responsibility. So I rented a U Haul from the airport and immediately drove to 8th and 42nd Street, sure enough, all of our stuff had been thrown to the curb, no one was guarding it, some of it was still in the foyer, and I had to unload everything out of there, put it in the U Haul, the entire time 2 huge guido guys with shoulder holsters stood there, and made sure that I knew they had their guns, and make me take everything out. They wouldn't hold a door, wouldn't help me lift anything. As soon as I got the truck packed up, they put posters, with a picture of me, Rafaele, and Aaron, it said, if these faces ever show up here, arrest them immediately! And that was the end of Show World. It sucked. (Laughter)
Heaps: Now Mitch, when you were in grad school in Kansas, I remember you told me you were working on some paintings, and you used to put them in the backyard because you were interested in seeing what the weather would do to your paintings. How did that turn out for you?
Miller: Exactly. That's a good question, Heaps. It kind of relates to what I'm doing. When I was out in Kansas, the work I was doing was a lot different from what I'm doing now in terms of the way it looks, but my process wasn't that much different. I was doing a lot of dumpster diving, and making landscape paintings out of tons of found objects. The idea was I would pour paint and make a mess, and I would take these paintings and bury them, or put them in a river tied to a rope, and let them do their thing for a while, then come back in a few months, dig 'em out. Patina, and erosion was there, I'd start to work with that. So I had a big back yard, and another backyard behind my backyard. My plan with that backyard was to use it to let a lot of my paintings do their decay work. So I started throwing paintings back there, and it would be a month or 2 before I'd go back and check on them, and inevitably, almost all of them would be gone. I didn't know if they were completely decaying, or someone was taking them. I wouldn't think anyone was taking them, because there was no evidence of people back there.
Heaps: So, you're just sticking paintings in the neighbor's yard.
Miller: I guess I was sticking paintings in the neighbor's yard. Then, as I was working through grad school, in the summers I would work on
Heaps: That ought to accelerate the process of decay.
Miller: Because of that, I started really getting into using polyester resins and things, because my M.O. became, make paintings that were Burroughs-proof. Whatever guns he could shoot, instead of the paintings blowing apart, how could I catch those bullets! It was awesome to have that experience.
Heaps: Is that how you got the idea of shooting at your work?
Miller: It's not how I got the idea, but I can't help but think that was a part of the natural progression to where I am now. I saw what
Heaps: Is that why you took up archery?
Miller: No, I've been doing archery forever. I was a boy scout, and they taught us to make bows and arrows, from then on, it stuck. It's
Heaps: Well, Mitch, I know you from my friend, the Jerd, and his friend, Matthew Bakkom, the pride of Minneapolis.
Miller: Isn't he though? Matt started and ran and directed and curated, the whole 9 yards, a gallery in Minneapolis that he called Under.
Heaps: It was in the basement of an apartment building. It was his apartment.
Miller: Hence the name Under! He invited me to do a solo show there, not so long ago. It was a show of all my drawings. What I was doing
Heaps: Dan Rose! The famous, beloved poet from Des Moines, Iowa!
Miller: So I had never met Dan Rose, but I heard that he was a good time. So, I flew in, went to bed, and got woken up about 6:30 or 7 the next morning with this red faced Dan Rose guy screaming in my face, "Mitch Miller! It's time to START DRINKING!" I just thought, Oh God, who is this guy? But I just met him, and I'll oblige. We got up and got ourselves together. For some reason I think the World Cup was on, or something. We found some bar, at this point it was 8 o'clock in the morning, and it was open.
Heaps: Was it... Liquor Lyle's?
Miller: I think that's right. A lot of booths, and a lot of TVs.
Heaps: It's just a couple blocks from the place.
Miller: Yup. Yup. We went in, and they were happy to see us, and they made us some enormous Bloody Marys. We had about 3 of those, and they actually mixed us up a liter of Bloody Marys to go, so we started walking back to the gallery, and we passed a garage sale. Rose was
Heaps: Was there a Green Lantern suit, as well?
Miller: There was not a Green Lantern suit. When that happened, I said, see you later, it was nice meeting ya, and I ran after Rose. I find
Heaps: And the traffic comes up from there, and they can't even see!
Miller: They come up from there around a corner, they can't see. So, I ran into the road and started shaking him, and he wasn't doing anything. So I just stood up in my Superman outfit, and stopped traffic, and waited for the ambulance and cops and everyone to come. The entire time traffic is backing up. It was bad. Finally the cops get there, so now the whole scene is kind of under control, they're redirecting traffic, but I had people driving by, a group full of girls in this car, they drove by and rolled down their window and they all gave me their phone numbers, and said "Give us a call some time, Superman!" So I was helping the cops out, we needed to get him into the ambulance, and I was there to help with that, so we get the guy on the stretcher, we're pushing him in, and the last thing that happened was 2 cops came and shook my hand and said, "Thanks, Superman." It really felt good. The other cool thing that happened was, Bakkom was doing a big event at the Walker Art Center in their sculpture garden. He put together a game of Capture the Flag, where he got 200 people for the red team, and 200 people for the blue team, and it was an all night, until the sun came up, game of Capture the Flag. I was supposed to be a participant, but since I was not Mitch any more, I was this French
Heaps: Well, Mitch, good luck with the show, I'm sure it's going to be great. I'll see you tomorrow night... at the shooting gallery.
Miller: Yeah! Fantastic. See ya!
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief