Rethinking “Normal” with painter Wyatt Mills

By Kimberly Nichols - Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Rethinking “Normal” with painter Wyatt Mills

Walking into Project Gallery, I am confronted by Wyatt Mills’ painting “I Seem To Have Forgotten The Recipe” in which a woman in a creamy 1950s pink colored kitchen maneuvers a cooking pot. Only I am not merely aware of her hands wielding the pot in a moment of everyday housewife duty; I am also in on the energy of her mind. Swirling around her are arcs of frenetically painted chaos, blobs of color spattered about the environment, and brushstrokes hanging in midair attempting to illuminate a thought bubble. As the title piece of the show “Normal,” it illustrates beautifully the idea that as individual people, we are constantly vacillating between two identities, the one we feel inside versus the one we project on the outside.

Rethinking “Normal” with painter Wyatt Mills

Walking into Project Gallery, I am confronted by Wyatt Mills’ painting “I Seem To Have Forgotten The Recipe” in which a woman in a creamy 1950s pink colored kitchen maneuvers a cooking pot. Only I am not merely aware of her hands wielding the pot in a moment of everyday housewife duty; I am also in on the energy of her mind. Swirling around her are arcs of frenetically painted chaos, blobs of color spattered about the environment, and brushstrokes hanging in midair attempting to illuminate a thought bubble. As the title piece of the show “Normal,” it illustrates beautifully the idea that as individual people, we are constantly vacillating between two identities, the one we feel inside versus the one we project on the outside. In fact, true “normal” is a constantly in flux mash-up as opposed to the idealized version we continually tax ourselves to live up to. In this latest body of work Mills confronts standard ideologies and concepts surrounding what it is to be normal in our society, letting our insecurities and neuroses whirl around in the open air instead of confining them. 

I recently caught up with Mills’ after the opening of “Normal” to ask a few questions about the series.

 Wyatt Mills, BluebirdOil, mixed media on canvas, 36 in x 48 in.

Kimberly Nichols: Where did the inspiration for these works come from? Did you have a particular “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to visibly express the constant flux of internal vs. external forces swirling perpetually inside each of us? 

Wyatt Mills: I've been interested in the less popular side of the thought process since I can remember, so I think most of my paintings are reflective of self-doubt, anxiety, or other extravagant internal dramas. I spend a lot of my time in my studio, and a significant portion of that time is spent staring at things, simply wondering what they are. The more time I spend with them, the more sense they make to me. 

I'm constantly un-amused by current pop culture's emphasis on egomaniacal sensationalism, so I find it comforting to celebrate the side of us that isn't always so sure. It's almost become irrelevant to doubt yourself, and I want to be out there like, "I don't think I can do it! But I'm going to do it as much as I can." 

 Wyatt Mills, Panopticon. Oil, mixed media on canvas, 68 in x 68 in.

KN: Your paintings also express how our identities are fluid entities, constantly morphing, flexing, bending, deconstructing and reconstructing in any given moment. Can you speak a little to the fact that your subjects seem to be under constant construction.

WM: That’s the fun part about painting and why I enjoy seeing playful failureabove anything else in other artists' work. My process definitely does not include any "color by numbers" aspect to it. I seesaw between calculated thought and directionless attack until I find some sort of inebriated compromise that strikes me as an honest representation of something intangible.  

KN: In your work, many of the “unseen” elements that you choose to show us on the canvas from the internal world of your subjects arrive in dashes of color, washes of translucency, or blobs of sloppy density. Was there any strategic thinking on your part insofar as the kinds of ephemera you splashed upon the portraits in correlation with either positive or negative thought characteristics that you were trying to unveil to us about your subjects? 

WM: I usually begin with large, seemingly unplanned strokes until I see something forming, and then I try to forge a combination of my pure hallucination together with some possibility of legibility for the viewer.  If a piece starts with a lot of frustrated energy, it tends to grow in that direction, but sometimes the paintings can change halfway in but the previous layers are still there peeking through like scars or memories. 

A lot of what these paintings are about is trying to understand different perspectives of reality. Ten people could be sitting in the same room watching an identical scenario in front of them but each one would have different experiences based on their mood, bias, concentration, etc. Those experiences then become ten separate memories, which are even further obscured and diluted versions of what took place. These paintings are supposed to be a screen shot of the elusive whirlwind that is individual experience. 

As someone with a healthy amount of anxiety, I tend to focus on the bewilderment and the internal struggles that preoccupy our seemingly mundane daily rituals. I can only try to dive into other worlds based on how I perceive them to be; they're all Rorschach tests in one way or another. I wanted to maintain that inkblot-ish aura so that each person might have his or her own individual experience in relation to the painting.

 

Wyatt Mills, Smile. Oil, mixed media on canvas, 29 in x 36 in.

KN: These works hint at our perpetual preoccupations as humans. They represent the fact that even though we may be standing in a present moment, our minds are oftentimes anything but present. What would you hope that a viewer would glean from viewing these pieces in this respect? 

WM: I don't think I'm alone in sensing that something is off in the world we live in. I think there’s a growing amount of people who feel as though we are coping with our reality while harboring fantasies of some alternate world. It is as if we are strictly tolerating existence. I know we have pills for this feeling now, but I still like to include this conflicted atmosphere in my paintings. There’s a lot of pressure to play along or drown in unpopular silence that I think isn't spoken about enough.  

KN: Were your subjects inspired by real people or plucked from your imagination? 

WM: If I use a person I know as a subject, they will progressively morph into something completely different that is something more about myself. If I begin work on a piece about myself, I find who or what is around me at the time heavily influences it. If I use a model or a reference, it is more of a tool toward what I am building rather than an emotional connection. However I can't deny that the tides pulling the brush around are stronger when painting someone close to me. I think it was Jon Berger who said, "Real drawing is a constant question, is a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality towards what is being drawn."

 

Wyatt Mills, Memory of Moment. Oil, mixed media on canvas, 36 in x 36 in.

KN: These paintings remind me that we are all just equally flesh, bone, blood and ego-chosen costume surrounding invisible, eternal spirit. The painting of the two people meeting over a bar reflects this nicely in the fact that you have created these transparent allusions to thought bubbles in which tons of thought is going on for each person inside their brains while they are equally struggling to connect to each other in real time. It makes me think how miraculous it is that two people can end up connecting at all in this day and age while competing with internal noise, digital noise, external noise and all the various influences contained within all those realms of constant distraction. What was your desire in making this piece with the two subjects as opposed to most of your other pieces that carry singular portraits?

WM: You hit an essential vein of the idea when you mention the struggle to connect. I think one purpose of the piece you mentioned is depicting how multiple figures are just as dislocated and alone as the individuals in the other works. I didn't even realize it was the only one with two figures in it until you brought that up actually but now I think I'll do some more like that. 

 

Wyatt Mills, Female on Couch. Oil, mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 60 in.

KN: Tell me more about the naked woman who seems a bit aggressive but whose face is an enigmatic blur. What was the inspiration and intention behind that piece? What does the nudity bring to the overall show concept that the other pieces do not, if anything? 

WM: These pieces are supposed to be an intimate and unapologetic venture into real parts of us that are often ignored or go uncelebrated. In the particular piece you mention, I was focusing on a modern restlessness of a prominently sedentary life in one’s own home. The main point of calling the show “Normal” was a play on how we often present ourselves normal in front of others while having some complicated, individual, internal struggle that is also a completely normal thing to have. The word is a kind of two-sided coin. For me, it’s regular to be scared and weird all the time. But yes, the idea of being vulnerable or emotionally exposed is a major component of the show and nudity was one of many ways to carry that metaphor. 

KN: Is there a reason your hands are oftentimes the most literally detailed and solid pieces of a painting?

WM: I like to focus on body parts that we use as a way of deciphering our outside world. My last show I think I was asked the same thing about eyes - I guess I've been a hand mood lately. 

 

Wyatt Mills, The Man. Oil, mixed media on canvas. 

KN: The haircutting piece “The Man” is startling and powerful for many reasons. The haircutter’s head is in a box, which made me think about the ways we cut ourselves off of flow when we become defined by things like profession. Was his head in a box because he was focused on his work at the moment? Is his head in a box because he was closing himself off to this client whose brains he would rather cut then her hair? Was his head in a box because his client was central to the piece and it was all about her experience and therefore she “boxed” him out? This piece brings up for me how we interact with many different people in our daily lives who we don’t know at all yet underneath we are all simmering simultaneously. This work makes me feel a sense of common humanity that even in its darkness is illuminating. Did making these paintings reveal anything new to you about your own perspectives on human connection?

WM: Painting is the main way I cope with my own "human connection" and it is a learning process for sure. The barber in this piece portrays a sort of anonymous, undefined entity that is trimming the brains out of his patron while blinding them with the other hand. The patron is grinning wildly as he or she reads a newspaper compiled out of collaged sensationalism and propaganda. I wanted to make a serious yet satirical point about the faceless forces behind the agendas presented to us, trimming away at our brains while we remain foolishly entertained. This same boxed in face of the barber is seen tucked away in one of the floor tiles, representing how this subliminal encouragement is all around us, sometimes it's just less obvious. The box around his head was symbolic of a constrained thought process as well as a guillotine.

 

Wyatt Mills, I Think I Can 01. Oil, mixed media on canvas, 30 in x 30 in.

KN: In the two pieces titled “I Think I Can” there is so much tension going on with the gritted teeth and the intellectual structures of geometry and thought literally framing the heads. Can you tell me a little bit about the intensity behind these pieces?

WM: It's a common habit for people to sweep the terrible parts of their life under a rug, then put a regular face on and continue pretending everything is okay. These two pieces are subjects with their pretending face peeled off, revealing the situation hiding under the rug out in the open, naked and raw. 

KN: I like how the pieces look relatively solid from far away but as you get closer you start to see how flimsy the realities really are. In the end, this show makes me really question reality, its boundaries, its limitations, its influences on our mind frame, well-being, and illusions. It also makes me crave silence and stillness. What did you get out of the making of these works and what did you take away from the process?

WM: Every painting is a test of how far I can let myself explode. I'm making progress, haha. I think this was definitely a step forward for me in terms of becoming braver with my process while conveying my ideas more thoroughly. I'm almost scared to let myself near my paintings when they have to be shown in case I decide to turn them all upside down and start over last minute. Now that the paintings are being detained at the gallery, I can finally start some new pieces and unleash all of those urges to frolic and throw paint around. I told myself I'd take a vacation after the opening, but I couldn't help starting new paintings already and I'm having more fun than ever.

Image above: Wyatt Mills, I Seem To Have Forgotten The Recipe. Oil, mixed media on canvas, 68 in x 68 in. 

Normal will be on view at Project Gallery through March 16.

Kimberly Nichols is an artist, writer, and social anthropologist in Los Angeles, California. Her conceptual works, literary fiction and creative nonfiction have been exhibited and published internationally. She is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories Mad Anatomy (Del Sol Press, 2005) and is currently writing a second book.

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Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995.  Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995. Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

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