Wes Mills

at Rhona Hoffman, through September 3

By Fred Camper

Looking at Wes Mills’s seven drawings at Rhona Hoffman I thought of the cathedral at Chartres, which I’d finally seen last March–not so much its sacred aspect as the way its forms engage with empty space. Chartres’ spire energizes the sky around it, lifting one upward, and the awe-inspiring scale and sculpted perfection of the interior create an openness that belies the strong enclosure, making the air seem to reverberate with possibility. Mills’s drawings, made with graphite and gum arabic, are subtle and small–the five larger ones are a bit less than seven inches square–but they too seem to set space free.

One of two drawings titled Memory Line reminded me of viewing Chartres’ spire. Each line in a row of 45 on the right side of the paper starts at the bottom and goes a bit more than halfway up; unevenly spaced and often broken–each is in several segments–they create a dialogue with the space around them. The lines meet a curved horizontal band of gum arabic that’s slightly darker than the pale tan paper; the gum arabic causes the paper to bend a bit, and the various folds produced give these drawings an almost sculptural three-dimensionality, taking the lines off the paper and into space. The curved band is elegant but somewhat arbitrary, seemingly a momentary stopping point rather than a real boundary. Together the broken lines, the gum arabic–which makes the paper more translucent–and the space around the shape created by the pencil lines all work to dematerialize Memory Line.

If this piece suggests a spire, an untitled drawing (one of the two smaller works) reminded me of Chartres’ interior: one peers into what first seems darkness, an undifferentiated gray that suddenly comes alive with detail and energy. In Mills’s drawing a dark shape slightly wider at the top on a blank ground appears from a distance to be solid gray but is actually composed of many thin pencil lines, some overlapping others. The paper’s texture shows through, adding further detail, as do some tiny dark dots where graphite has accumulated. The lines are too dynamic to be random but too multifarious to resemble the ordered forms of earlier abstractionists–such as Agnes Martin, one artist Mills acknowledges admiring. Lost in his peculiar blends of line and emptiness, the eye becomes a kind of wanderer, denied any firm resting place. These drawings are in fact about surrender–of one’s attachment to objects and of overly specific modes of thinking–and in this sense perhaps are not far removed from the feeling of transcendence produced by Chartres.

Wes Mills has never been to Chartres. He enjoys looking at art but is even happier hiking and camping in the hills near his Montana home. And of the other critics I’ve read on Mills, none has mentioned gothic architecture, though they have talked about Mikhail Baryshnikov, Karl Blossfeldt, Sigmund Freud, Louis Kahn, Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Georges Seurat, Robert Therrien, Cy Twombly, and of course Jacques Lacan (what artist worth his salt has not been given a Lacanian interpretation by now?). These dancers, painters, sculptors, architects, and writers don’t have a lot in common with one another. But perhaps the simplicity of Mills’s work, the feeling it gives of having emptied itself out, creates a kind of void that allows viewers to call up varied and seemingly contradictory associations.

Born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1960, Mills grew up mostly in eastern Oregon, where his family had an orchard outside a town with a population of six; later they moved to Montana. “Growing up in the country you really get a sense of place, and also of your attachment to quietness and loneliness,” Mills told me. It was in Montana that Mills took up drawing, encouraged by art teachers in junior high and high school; he drew a lot of trees, he recalls. He moved to New York City in 1982 to pursue a career as an artist but quickly grew discouraged with the gallery scene, abandoned art making, and worked as a cabinetmaker and carpenter. He began to draw again in 1993 while living in Taos, and soon his work was selling well at a Santa Fe gallery.

Only one work here calls for a representational reading–an untitled line drawing of some waves. The broken pencil lines of Memory Line might suggest a comb or drips, but only through a heroic leap of the imagination. The dark shape in the small untitled drawing is unlike a head and unlike most architectural forms: I was able to imagine a cathedral interior because it didn’t immediately suggest anything else, inviting me in and creating a sense of limitless depth–though this also depends on Mills’s use of pencil and paper. “I have this thing about seeing through the drawings, not in a physical way, but in the sense of not getting hung up on what the drawings physically are,” he says. He also finds titles troubling because “it seems to me that a drawing is about so much more than any title I could put to it.”

One work that does have a title is Dawa, My Left Your Left (Mills believes dawa is Sanskrit for “to pass through”). Like most of these drawings, it’s on tissue-thin silk paper folded over, producing two layers and consequently a feeling of depth. Dawa, My Left Your Left seems to show a single object, a long rectangle or cylinder of many tiny pencil lines with bands of gum arabic covering each end and the middle as if binding the rest of the shape, though the “object” seems too delicate to be any solid thing: the fragile form almost seems to hover in space. The light tan gum arabic seems to be containing the energy and potential chaos of the pale gray pencil lines, though nothing here has much weight.

The most obvious difference between Mills’s drawings and Chartres is the scale: Chartres is meant to dwarf the individual while Mills’s drawings don’t even match the viewer’s presence the way a human-size painting or sculpture would. They’re closer in size to a face, and their broken lines, enigmatic shapes, and crinkled paper–which might suggest decay–identify them as tentative rather than absolute, as objects of contemplation rather than graven images.

The strongest piece in this superb exhibit is the other Memory Line. Here Mills has drawn a short line through each of 16 little transparent disks of gum arabic, beginning at the bottom of the disk and extending just above the top. At first the disks look like indentations in the paper–and the lines are like hairs growing out of oversize follicles–but this association is quickly erased when one sees the image close-up. Placed somewhat irregularly around the paper, these disks add a peculiar kind of depth, and because they’re flush with the paper’s surface there’s arguably a little joke on trompe l’oeil illusionism: the lines appear to be growing out as well as up. Like most of the other drawings, this one has a pencil-lined border, and here Mills allows one of the “hairs” to extend a bit beyond it–his quiet joke on artists’ forms that are so powerful they can’t be contained by any barrier. Mills is not that kind of artist, of course; in fact his tiny lines, tentative shapes, and feeling of impermanence are the opposite of Chartres’ stony grandeur.

These “hairs” ultimately elude both association and interpretation. They seem to occupy the space even though the paper is mostly empty–but if this is an occupying army, it’s a modest one: isolated ants in ant hills, perhaps. Mills’s joke about illusionism further ensures that these “objects” will seem unstable, as if they were momentary apparitions. This feeling of impermanence makes the balance Mills achieves between object and emptiness and between repetition and irregularity all the more remarkable.

Mills’s great achievement is to make genuinely lyrical art out of imagery that’s neither grand nor space filling. In this sense his work responds to our increasingly malled landscape and graspingly possessive consumer culture. Mills says he works intuitively and doesn’t want to be “sidetracked by ideas,” but he actually understands all this quite well. Of these drawings he says, “When I first put the gum on the silk tissue it became transparent, and I thought, ‘Wow! I’m doing something on this paper, but it doesn’t seem like I’m building up on it.’

“As a people, when we see a neutral space we build a house on it, or if we see a neutral room we maybe add furniture. When you reach this point in your head where everything is quiet, one has a tendency to want to add to that. I hope that my drawings can be about not adding to that space but just letting it exist, acknowledging that kind of quietude.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.