Mike Mills Talks About Los Angeles and His Artistic Practice
Karen Marta interviewed Mike Mills on the occasion of the launch of Mills’ first retrospective monograph, Graphics Films, in 2009.
Karen Marta: Why did you leave NYC? What do you like about the LA scene?
Mike Mills: I lived in NY for 15 years, from the age of 18 to 33, and I just wanted to go home. I wanted a yard, I wanted the sun and the plants and the hills I grew up with. I was also tired of how relentlessly hip, sophisticated, trying to be new New York can feel. Or maybe that was my fault, but the New York my soul kept running into was trying very hard to be the next thing. It was nice to come to the boredom of LA. But now I miss all the people, the throngs of people you see and walk through everyday in NYC. And that its’ a village, a walking place with small places, I miss that a lot.
Marta: Did studying at Cooper Union give you the freedom to make graphic art into fine art? Or was it from making graphics for skateboards?
Mills: In a way, I studied with people who theoretically didn’t buy the value difference between the two, didn’t fall for the High-Low divide. If anything there was a lot of criticism of being a traditional artist, a painter for instance – when I was at Cooper. Being a painter was sort of the equivalent of being a banker, especially a straight-white-male-form-privileged-background-painter – that would be the most regressive choice you could make, the most boring.
Marta: When did you first go from flat to the three-dimensional media? Was it a music video?
Mills: I did a bunch of interviews and kind of a story for Frank Black when he first left the Pixies. Then quickly a short film for myself and then more videos. I begged all the people I was doing videos with if I could do a video for free. It took a couple of years of doing that. Videos were great in that there was lot of freedom but the short format helped the young film student I was. You only had to pull something off for three minutes. Plus, it strangely began sort of an auteur thing with some directors: You wrote the idea and with the directors I admired, the idea, not the look was the most important part. So ideas turned into stories, and that really led me to being a writer director instead of just a director.
Marta: Graphics are flat and still, while film is 3-D and moving. Was it hard to make the transition? What did you take with you to Thumbsucker?
Mills: I’ve sort of brought my flat and presentational sensibility into film. It’s not like they’re divorced practices for me. I think of film much like I do presenting any still visual image. I’ve become more adept with film over the years, more able to think in more traditional film terms, but I still enjoy coming from that graphic perspective. My next film will have even more of that.
Marta: Many artists like Andy Warhol, William Klein and Roy Lichtenstein transformed imagery from popular culture. What were you looking at? Decals, advertising, t-shirts, skateboards?
Mills: But they had to transform it. I don’t need to, I’d just present it as valid, filled with history and personal story, a totally complete cultural event on it’s own.
Marta: Several artists have crossed mediums with great ease. Has your work been influenced by this freedom?
Mills: People like Charles and Ray Eames, the Bauhaus, Hans Haacke, Fischli and Weiss – by the time I left college, these people were my guiding light.
Marta: What was your favorite commercial when you were going up? Why?
Mills: I don’t really remember any. Funny. I loved TV though: Mash, Six Million Dollar Man, Adam 12, etc. all that was big for me.
Marta: What are you working on next? What is your next film about?
Mills: I hope to shoot my next film this year. I’ve been writing it for years now. I’ll keep the contents a secret for now.
Mike Mills by Brian Sheer
As Part of the Citywide Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 Collaboration, the Getty Center has Recently Launched an Interactive Web Archive. ForYourArt Asked Claire de Dobay Rifelj to Help Navigate the Archive.
This dynamic site offers a digital snapshot of the art scene in Los Angeles from 1945–1980 via artworks documentary images, video interviews with artists and a historical map related to its four exhibitions.
A recurring refrain throughout the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions has been the notion that in pre-1980 Los Angeles, opportunities for artists to exhibit and to profit from their artistic activities were scarce. While the latter is certainly true—L.A. had no where near the stockpile of collectors, galleries, and museums as did a city like New York—the Getty’s online archive highlights the wide variety of sites that artists found to show their work.
To give a little background, L.A. proper did not have a dedicated art museum until 1965, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard. At its predecessor—the Los Angeles County Museum of Science, History and Art in Exposition Park—some L.A. artists were included in the annual juried exhibitions, but art galleries in the 1940s and early 50s rarely showed work by young L.A. artists. Certain spaces did at least expose them to the work of New York and European avant-gardes, including book stores like Jake Zeitlin’s “Red Barn,” M.J. Royer’s Book Shop, and Books 55, as well as Barbara Byrnes’s American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood.
Artists responded to this dearth of gallery representation with inventive solutions. In the mid-1950s, Edward Kienholz negotiated with the owner of the Coronet Louvre Theatre on La Cienega to install work by local artists in its lobby. He did the same with the greenroom of the Turnabout Theatre, a space that Kienholz named the NOW Gallery. In a more private context, Wallace Berman was known to make art inside of abandoned buildings in Venice Beach, and in 1957 George Herms staged his “Secret Exhibition,” an ephemeral display of work on Hermosa Beach open one day only to close friends. In later years, Billy Al Bengston and Guy Dill made their studios available for exhibitions and performances by fellow artists.
By the 1960s, numerous gallery owners came to appreciate the artistic talent emerging from these makeshift spaces, and the hotspot for viewing it was on La Cienega between Melrose and Santa Monica Boulevard. On Monday night “Art Walks,” visitors would flock to galleries run by, among others, Felix Landau, Esther Robles, David Stuart, Rolf Nelson, Nicholas Wilder, Riko Mizuno, and Molly Barnes. One prominent stop was the Ferus Gallery, one of the earliest spaces on La Cienega to focus on L.A. art—including that of Kienholz, one of its co-founders.
On the museum front, LACMA may not have opened until 1965, but the nearby Pasadena Art Museum, under the direction of Thomas Leavitt and Walter Hopps, gave important solo exhibitions to artists working in L.A. in the 1960s such as Llyn Foulkes, Peter Voulkos, Craig Kauffman, and Ken Price. It was also the site of Hopps’s New Painting of Common Objects—the first exhibition of Pop art in an American museum—which featured paintings by Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode. Ruscha mentions in a video that LACMA was slower to promote art made in Los Angeles. However, thanks in part to the efforts of curator Henry Hopkins, the museum soon followed Pasadena’s lead and organized exhibitions showcasing L.A. artists in the 1960s and ’70s.
For women artists and artists of color, meanwhile, the prospect of showing one’s work in Los Angeles was still difficult. Betye Saar found early opportunities at small organizations like the Palos Verdes Library, and later received attention from larger institutions as well as galleries devoted to the work of African American artists. Noah Purifoy, for his part, organized the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon at UCLA, which presented assemblages made from the rubble of the Watts uprisings. Universities frequently supported L.A.’s less-represented artists, and it was at the California Institute for the Arts that the groundbreaking Feminist Art Program, under the direction of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schaprio, came into being. For one of its projects—Womanhouse—female students transformed the rooms of a suburban house into art installations that played upon notions of domesticity and societal constraints.
Bypassing altogether the need for an exhibition space, Eleanor Antin produced her serial postcard work, 100 Boots, which she sent through the postal service. Between 1971 and 1973, Antin mailed out 51 sets of postcards that told the story, in pictures, of one hundred boots as they traveled across the country. Ed Ruscha also circumvented the gallery system by producing paperback artist books, each one illustrating a series of mundane objects in a deadpan photographic style. He sold them for as little as $2.50, which made them available to virtually anyone.
Artists in L.A. have consistently found ways to exhibit their work in both traditional and unconventional spaces, bringing their work to various audiences both large and small. This innovative spirit is still present today, even as Los Angeles is now considered a major center for contemporary art with world-class museums and dozens of high profile galleries.
Delve deeper into the history of the Los Angeles art world by visiting Pacific Standard Time at the Getty Center. The Getty has been adding more materials to this site, so check back often.
1. Interior view of Barbara Byrnes’s American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood in the late 1940s. Image courtesy of James Byrnes
2. Wallace Berman in an abandoned building on the Speedway (an alleyway running parallel to the beach) in Venice, California, ca. 1955–57. The Getty Research Institute, Charles Brittin papers, 2005.M.11. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Photo by Charles Brittin
4. Felix Landau in his gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. Photo by Frank J. Thomas. Courtesy of the Frank J. Thomas Archives
5. Exterior view of Nicholas Wilder Gallery at the time of Ronald Davis’s first solo exhibition in 1965. Image courtesy of Ronald Davis
6. Poster for Karl Benjamin exhibition at the Esther-Robles Gallery in Los Angeles, 1964. © Karl Benjamin. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Michael Asher, 2009.M.30.12
A special series in partnership with Transmission LA
ForYourArt highlights our favorite artists participating in Transmission LA: AV CLUB, a festival curated by Mike D of the Beastie Boys, which celebrates and presents contemporary art, music, film, and food. Open April 20-May 6, 2012 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. (more…)
For many, the inner workings of a museum are often obscured. ForYourArt steps into their offices to talk about what really happens.
Abby Bangser, director of Major Giving Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since 2009, fell into development unsuspectingly, having interned at Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art and The Renaissance Society while in college and then working at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Passionate about fostering the museum’s growth, Bangser facilitates a variety of experiences for LACMA’s patron groups, enhancing donors’ interaction with not only art, but also the institution and Los Angeles’ cultural landscape at large.
ForYourArt commissioned essays about The Clock from art critics Andrew Berardini and Ed Schad on the occasion of its 24-hour screening at LACMA.
Join ForYourArt as Berardini and Schad discuss the film on Saturday, September 22 at 5pm during Around the Clock: 24 Hour Donut City II, LACMA’s Choice.
Smuggle in a Sandwich
by Ed Schad
I’m usually disappointed when what I am reading has difficulty dovetailing into what is actually occurring in my life. I remember once, in sub-zero temperatures in Chicago, literally hating how little W.B. Yeats had to say to me on the El as commuters shoved elbows and armpits in my face. A more recent insult was reading the deathbed speech of the Roman Emperor Julian while trapped in a Miami Bennigan’s on what happened to be Senior Karaoke Night. Julian’s lovely iambic verse died under an asinine braying of this is ladies night, oh what a night. Grave-turning and indigestion.
While waiting to view Christian Marclay’s The Clock at LACMA, however—and thank whoever there is to thank for this—I not only had Guy Davenport’s essays but also, by happy accident, I had chosen from the collection “Walt Whitman”: an essay about Horace Traubel’s conversations with Whitman over the course of 1,458 evenings from 1888 to 1892. Davenport specializes in plucking mind-altering nuggets from massive amounts of information, and out of mountains of transcripts, he notices, more than anything else, Whitman’s dirty floor. Davenport finds young Traubel surrounded by an ever-growing sea of paper, fragments, notes, and bits of snipped rhyme reaching a point of mass. It was difficult even to find a place to sit.
Little wonder Leaves of Grass went into 6 editions during Whitman’s lifetime alone. If not for Whitman’s death, no doubt, he would have continued his additive promiscuity, still aggregating, still making lists, synthesizing and promulgating themes into his epic. Whitman’s poem grew as the country grew, collecting words as the U.S. collected lands and states, dividing, fighting then moving west, constantly taking in and taking on more of the continent. The best way to get to the “we” of America was by exploring the multitude of the “I,” and Whitman wanted his “I” as big as possible. The floor got dirtier and more personal. Traubel’s record of his conversations with Whitman grew to 9 volumes and took 90 years to print.
However, I had to leave Whitman in Camden. LACMA’s Bing Theater opened and there was The Clock, running on the big screen. I was eager to see it and slipped seamlessly out of the poet’s clutter and collection of American realities into Christian Marclay’s collection of time.
I got my bearings in the dark theater, but I was already in The Clock as soon as I sat down. I’ve always been involved with and always been inside this flowing movie of clips. A Japanese boardroom, all white, with an enormous clock. Two people in bed—she’s naked and he’s late. An effortless turn down a dark hallway, and another turn at its end. A gleaming set of doors with nurses stitching in and out, carrying newborns, white again. A family sits at table. Orson Wells in The Third Man, examining a car crash. Christopher Walken kept the watch, “Up his ass,” only to come here, “little man,” and hand it to you. Back to the family table. Time for grace.
How easy it is to list these events kissed and assembled with Marclay’s poetic touch. With Whitman close at hand and floating in my head, the list could even flow right back into Leaves of Grass:
“The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the
clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,
The snow-sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,
The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs,
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath . . .”
“What living and buried speech is always vibrating here,” Whitman says to close his stanza, and he could as easily be describing The Clock. I imagine multiple servers, hard drives, DVDs, pampas of notes and storage trying to hold Marclay’s big memory—a memory that aims at nothing less than everything—and feel the echo of Whitman’s dirty floor.
The Clock, however, might even be a more elegant synthesized whole than Leaves of Grass, which likes to groan and twist as much as wander into performances of virtuoso union. Neither can be taken in one sitting and both compulsively suck you in. Yet the tastes and gears of the contemporary give The Clock a sort of smuggle in a sandwich and pressure on the bladder addictive nature far beyond books. You push impossibly into the whole of it and are not content to stop. You are constantly in the pseudo-involvement of a film, but cannot pick up the story because there is no story (Isn’t it strange to be unable to leave a story because there is no story?).
Instead, you follow The Clock, are absorbed into The Clock. My eyes twitched and sought, followed each stimulation. Even after I made myself leave The Clock for my car, each billboard and point of ordinary fascination on Wilshire was something I had to have and take in like a bag of M&Ms. The Clock mimics the hungry joy of Whitman and gives it tight entertainment value.
Zadie Smith called The Clock “neither bad nor good, but sublime, maybe the greatest film you have ever seen,” and she’s exactly right. The Clock is a constant sublime apparition, a ceaseless trove of awe-production, at least at the moment. Certain people may have lost their interest in the Grand Canyon. Not so for The Clock, at least not yet. You don’t get bored. You can say you “get it,” that you have the concept of The Clock, but the minute-to-minute dazzle of the film quickly reminds you that there’s more to life than concepts. You are checked only by biological need and the schedules of the day. If you are Geoff Dyer, even the schedules evaporate, for the writer confessed that on seeing The Clock, there was nothing in his day to rival it. Appointments are ignored. Such is the tightly bound but densely fascinating world of The Clock.
The Clock both is and isn’t Whitman’s dirty floor. It has the fragments but not the clutter. It is an aggregation but is fully mature. I think of Whitman and Whitman’s poem and necessarily see a vibrantly bearded madman containing his frowzy America. Equally just is thinking of Marclay as he is: a thin, serious Euro-DJ bent on perfection, turning time in an almost perfect machine.
I find this distinction significant. In Leaves of Grass, life is ever in the process of becoming art and therefore remains life. In The Clock, life has gotten so close to art, so remarkable sown into a whole, that the dramatic difference between the film and life becomes miraculously apparent. While in Whitman, the collective “we” emerges from the dramatically large “I,” in Marclay, the collective “we” and thousands of little “I”s arrive as a seamless whole.
We gasp together in The Clock, we get scared together, we laugh together, and it’s haunting because we discover we are haunted: by an imperfect but ever present past; by various voices that can seem so utterly perfectly like our voice that we forget we come from those very voices. We can, if we get meditative, entertain notions of how we are built and how we are all a population of ghosts—all reflected facets of a thousand faces. In The Clock, we dance with Eisenstein’s and Hugo’s automaton, a creature only half alive. It’s the best we can do before we lose control and become ourselves.
How we are built is the knowledge that we collectively build the significant particulars of each moment of our lives. We start with a shared biology—we eat in intervals, we lose steam in the afternoon, we sleep at night, and frequently because of the popularity of sleep as a nighttime activity, we find that the deep night is often spent alone. These biological details, with consciousness, become metaphoric—dawn becomes a stand in for birth, the early morning a time of youthful inspiration, the adult grind and reality of the afternoon, the soft decline of the evening, death at dark. Certain historical moments try to transcend metaphor—Jesus died at 3 o’clock on Good Friday and Christians believe that at 3 o’clock on that day, they are literally closer to that point in history than at any moment. It is not always a religious impulse though—anyone who has discovered that at 8:46 in the morning it’s easier to feel closer to 9-11 knows this: it’s the moment the plane hit the first World Trade Center Tower. No other moment of the day is closer.
The Clock is built from these significant particulars, which are subsequently built from thousands of sources and authors. It is a collage of art based on what is collectively built by humans out of stories and into movies; out of movies and into other movies. Each instant is the vision of someone else, yet collectively, it is a vision of us, as though a multitude of ants were sent by an unknown impulse out to an array of paths, and when each returned with their individual found, hewn, or constructed pebble, the built mound still looked like a mound. Biology appears, metaphor comes naturally, and historical flash points organize, just like in history. And also like history, Marclay’s The Clock, ultimately, with all of its clips, alternate realities, and mixed music, miraculously is still a day.
And like all perfect art, The Clock brings us to the point where we are all remarkably passive—to the ledge of becoming what we are, which transcends representation, which means being an ambitious actor inside Whitman’s multitude, which means leaving the theater. It will be messy once it starts, and it starts once we leave art and enter life. In my viewing of The Clock, this was the moment, having seen all the tables set and food prepared, I discovered I was hungry. Right on time.
Christian Marclay, Detail of The Clock, 2010, Single-channel video with sound, 24 hours, © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York