Three years ago, in the bathroom: Jean Douchet's French New Wave with the sumptuous image of Bridget Bardot on the cover. Among the stacks of books piled in the living room: a text by Sophie Calle, known for her voyeuristic fascination with the objects left behind by hotel guests. And on the wall leading upstairs: a hand-drawn sign with a sketch of a rumpled old dog and a cautionary note: "careful: confuses affection and aggression."This is Mike Mills.
Or it's a beginning, a collection of objects that suggest who Mike Mills might be. One could add biographical details: born in '66, raised in Southern California, addicted to skateboarding, lives in LA. His likes? Ozu and Jarmusch. Dislikes? Pretentiousness and attitude. Career? Make that "careers." He's an artist, illustrator, graphic designer, commercial director, blogger and filmmaker. He's the co-founder of the Director's Bureau, a collective of Los Angeles-based directors, and founder of Humans, a company through which he showcases various design projects. And his work? There are t-shirts, printed ribbon ("Not how or when or why but yes," says one) and bags. There are music videos for (among others) Air, Yoko Ono and Moby, and commercials for (among others) Volkswagen and The Gap. Mills is also a filmmaker. In much of his work, Mills relishes detail, moving in close on faces, hands, eyes and hair. His work is full of the small bits of the material world that make up everyday life. So it's no surprise that a new book - edited by Aaron Rose - based on his work presents not a chronological history, but an eclectic collection. What does the recently published Mike Mills Graphics Films tell us about this artist?
"My mother teaches my father how to smoke in junior high, 1938." That's the first of 24 captions explaining 24 associated black-and-white drawings that together make up "Self Portrait, 2008," the final project featured in the book.
Like the image on the cover, of a bouquet rendered so close up that we see not flowers but the dots that ooze color, the portrait remains too enigmatic - perhaps too intimate - to give clarity. The book as a whole, however, strives for more comprehensiveness, collecting for the first time the eclectic work produced by Mills over the last 15 years. Organized visually and thematically rather than chronologically, the book nevertheless reveals an evolution across those years, starting with the nostalgia-tingerd retro-with-an-echo iconography of early album covers and posters in which Mills cavorted between high and low, street and pop culture, crafting an often funny and graphically satisfying body of work. The emphasis shifts, however, and Mills's more recent work shows a more rule-based or algorithmic predilection, favoring lists, rules, collections, and, strangely enough, the details of history. You see this in the "Self Portrait" and its arcane itemization of personal and historical events. And you see it in a spate of rule-based music videos for Blonde Redhead in 2007, including "Top Ranking" which uses one image per second of artist Miranda July, and another in which Mills gathered every photo from The New York Times on October 23, 2007. Huge insight? Not really. So much writing about Mills focuses on how he's part of a particular generation cheerfully dismissive of the line that's supposed to divide the purity of art from the dirtier demands of design. And it's interesting to think about Mills as an LA-based artist, emerging from the specifics of SoCal culture. In terms of text, the book features only brief descriptions of the work and two short essays; there's a lot more to know.