If a 6 turned out to be 9:John Millei: selected paintings

George Lawson
Oct 28, 2015 12:51AM

by Julia Couzens

“Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting.  Thinking is language—record-keeping—and has to take place before or after.” - Gerhard Richter

Summer, 2011
George Lawson Gallery
There There, 2015
George Lawson Gallery

This exhibition presents the work of noted Los Angeles painter, John Millei and represents work spanning 2008 to 2015.  The survey includes examples from the Procession paintings, the Hat Heads, the great Maritime series, as well as new work made specifically for this show.  The paintings continue Millei’s strategic investigation of contemporary figure painting, portraiture, and the slippery slope between abstraction and figuration.  Born in 1958, Millei is well into a productive mid-career.  It’s difficult not to sound Old School, but when looking at Millei, one inevitably considers notions of structure, painterly hand, touch, the historical continuum that this exhibition probes, and the allure of unrepentant confidence in formal skill.

The suite of five paintings from the Hat Heads series, draw from historical motifs of figure painting and portraiture, positing fragmented and reinvented recollections and commentary using such touchstones as Velasquez, Picasso, Morandi, and Guston.  On some level all painting elicits the history of painting and re-presents unique distillations of all painting that has gone before.  In part that is how we recognize it.  So it may be limiting to make historical context an argument for painting. The motifs upon which Millei hangs his work provides scaffolding, but perhaps the richer, more immediate experience is in turning our attention to how the painting looks and to how Millei strategically works in the gap between painting as a picture and painting as an object.

The portraits seem like blow-ups or close ups taken with a zoom lens.  The lines tend to be reductive and precise, and as much shape or plane or mass.  Millei’s brush strokes are emphatic, rarely random, and each stroke becomes an integral component of the painting’s structure.  There is no extraneous painting or embellishment, and to remove a line or stroke, one risks collapsing the framework like a house of cards.  This reductive tension becomes a drama of control and admirable restraint, painting only to what just holds, nothing more.

Millei’s surfaces are a uniformly coherent layering of thick over thin, gloss over chalky, ethereal matte.  His painting is driven by his concern for physical truth, paying attention to how the pigment goes down to achieve architectural integrity.  He doesn’t finesse his surface to make the painting appear a particular way.  The paint itself is what the painting is. The painting is direct, terse, straightforward, and feels as if it was made all at once without spending hours and hours and hours to get a certain look.  To be sure there is consummate craft afoot, but to Millei’s credit it’s invisible, and as if his decisions were made from the paint itself.

The several abstractions favor a French palette of muddy browns, grays, anemic peach, and sour greens.  Up-ended and tilting compositions are organized into freeways of speeding lines, on-ramps and off-ramps of space and gesture.  Special Pleasure, 2015 offers a sluice-y blade of rose suggestive of a woman’s sheath emerging from looping lines of gunky violet.  The superb Every Morning, also 2015, is an unzipping grid conjuring grayed casement windows.  It is confident, reductive, and masterful in its balanced distillation of the architectural impulses evident in the sextant like earlier painting, Maritime, 2008. The extent to which Millei pays attention to what is just enough signifies a painter in full.

In contrast to land-locked space and the closely held intimacy of the Hat Heads, the Maritime series unmoors the craft of art, setting sail on an odyssey of linear discovery and spatial squalls. Heeling planks of cold blacks, ice-y whites, and cobalt blue toss us onto collapsing decks of paint.  From The Odyssey, to Robinson Crusoe, to “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, to Life of Pi maritime disasters and journeys have been deployed as metaphors for our interior journeys spanning minds and time. Millei’s capsizing, oceanic abstractions are transcendent spectacles of radiance and existential mystery.

The paintings in this show are lean and buff.  They are organized, resolved, and focused. They are efficiently drained of problems.  But it’s their resolution and sense of certainty that takes risk and a rich dimensionality out of the equation.  There is no doubt to be found, and Millei seems to know what he is thinking, as if he is unwilling to be confused or disruptive.  He plays his cards close to the vest, exposing little of himself, as if his decisions are mobilized more by strategy than necessity.  Millei is capable of making grand and speculative paintings that hold us in a breathtaking emotional grip. But who of us can lay claim to consistent greatness?  Any serious, working artist keeps working, building and dismantling, waiting in the working, working in the waiting. And to be sure, Millei is an intelligent painter, a workhorse painter, possessing a dogged belief in painting’s power.

Julia Couzens is an artist living and working on Merritt Island in the Sacramento River delta.  This essay is, in part, from a review previously published on squarecylinder.com

George Lawson