Image: Gabriel Mills
Oil on canvas
84 x 120 in
213.4 x 304.8 cm (diptych)
With his heady all-over abstractions, painter Gabriel Mills confronts the horror vacui of the canvas, arriving at compositions whose balance seems to transcend chaos. His paintings are characterized by a raw materiality that has been coaxed and muscled into equilibrium. Mills abuts writhing gestures of near-sculptural impasto with pools of pigment and skins that threaten to flake away. The result evokes viscera in places, and geology in others. These are landscapes, bodily and earthen, that are at once fragile and abundant.
Mills belongs to a lineage of artists who have reconceived the terms of abstraction from a social or psychological realm. He summons the rutted, ashen landscapes of Anselm Kiefer, as well as Yayoi Kusama’s ongoing series of Infinity Nets, through which she seeks to obliterate herself through obsessive, repetitive mark-making. There’s an element of catharsis at play, or an oblique processing of social injustice or instability. But Mills’s strongest forebears are Frank Bowling, who retooled the visual language of Color Field painting, and Jack Whitten—one sees echoes of Whitten’s searching squeegee smears here, as well as his methods of working back into images by shaving them away, exposing them. Though where Whitten responded to the developments of new imaging technologies in his time (inkjet printing, Xerox), Mills is resolute in his search for new meaning in traditional modes and materials.
Mills pours paint on his canvases, building up layers upon layers, controlled accidents from which he excavates compositions or elaborates them with paint applied with a palette knife. He creates various admixtures of oils, pigments, and dryers, adjusting proportions to create paint that might dehydrate or gel. The topography of the work begins to emerge as layers differently oxidize and evaporate. Mills has an alchemical sense for color that rewards the viewer who intimately examines the wrought surface of a painting and then takes its entirety in from a distance. His palettes are complex, but still convey a sense of elemental potency. Rhinoceros III (all works mentioned 2023), for example, comprises sweeping passages of patinated bronze, rust, and umber, but its overwhelming effect is of lapis lazuli.
For the artist, the relationship of detail to gestalt in these paintings reflects a broader inquiry into context and translation. As he works, Mills listens to music that features non-linguistic verbal communication—the titles of some of his paintings share the names of these songs, including the Latvian Radio Choir performing Gājputni (a word that translates to migratory birds), or Kid Cudi’s humming track Copernicus Landing—and he considers what significance emerges from this kind of transmission that is more open to interpretation. Like many artists before him, including Sol Lewitt, Robert Ryman, and Fred Wilson, Mills once worked as a museum security guard. He dates the genesis of these paintings to his days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he would sketch and study while he kept watch.
He describes a game he would play, wherein he would select words from museum displays and void the letters of linguistic significance before rearranging them according to their formal properties. Once, he arrived at the word Tidsoptimist, which he learned translated to “time optimist” in Swedish. He identified with the idea, but later discovered it had the more negative implication of procrastinator. Mills channeled these shifts in understanding, reckonings with communicative material, in his approach to the eponymous painting. Its abraded and reworked surface evinces a deep and thorough processing of matter, information, and meaning.
At Micki Meng, two subdued figurative paintings accompany the six vibrant abstractions in the exhibition. Ciejahn is a striking Madonna and child, whose extreme horizontal dimensions only amplify the iconic nature of its subject. A representation of a miniature statue belonging to the artist, the image features a Black Mary and Jesus. Their features, as well as the details on their white robes and ornaments, are handled with extreme delicacy. The subtlety of the figures stands in stark contradistinction to the pulsating quality of Mills’s abstractions. The same can be said for Pale Horse, a low-contrast grisaille that pictures massive piles of Air Jordans while compositionally referencing The Last Judgment and Guernica. Jordans signify certain identities, he explained. These piles of shoes make one wonder what became of the people who once wore them.
Mills views his abstract and figurative paintings as different expressions of the same process. He works on them side by side, such that they inform each other in the making. With their half-light timbre, one wants to read the figurations as specters that haunt their counterparts. These works provide a quiet context for the nuance of what is achieved in Mills’s abstractions—there, he works through questions of faith, identity, consumption, terror, and serenity.
Gabriel Mills (b. 1992, New Rochelle, NY) received an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from the Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT, and a BFA in Illustration and Art History from the University of Hartford, Hartford, CT. Recent solo exhibitions include Butterfly March, at Alexander Berggruen, New York, NY and SONATA HALF LIGHT, Micki Meng, San Francisco, CA. Select group exhibitions featuring his work include Expanding the Collections, New York Historical Society, New York, NY, Black Abstractionists: From Then Til’ Now, curated by Dexter Wimberly, Green Family Art Foundation, Dallas, TX; Durian On The Skin, François Ghebaly, Los Angeles, CA; Ultralight Beam, Pelham Art Center, Pelham, NY, Employee Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art; In Praise Of Shadows, Lyles And King, New York, NY; Elana Bowsher, Vicente Matte, Gabriel Mills, Alexander Berggruen, New York, NY. In 2021, He was an artist in residence at MASS MoCA.
The artist’s work is included in the public collections of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, FL; The Green Family Art Foundation, Dallas, TX; New York Historical Society, New York, NY; and X Museum of Contemporary Art, Beijing, CH.