Millree Hughes, born in North Wales in 1960, has been making art on the computer since 1998. In the 2000s, he showed with Michael Steinberg Fine Arts. Hughes is currently working with Museum Editions (www.museum-editions.com) in New York City and Polyglot Gallery in Dallas, Texas.
Bradley Rubenstein: Let's start by talking a little bit about Lummox (2010) before we get into the new work. I thought it was hilarious, and at the same time there was a serious aspect regarding cultural mediation that a lot of your work touches on. It also came out before James Franco’s Cindy Sherman show at Pace (New Film Stills, 2014), and all the Marina Abramović performances with Jay-Z and whatnot, so it really caught something about our cultural moment.
Millree Hughes: Thank you. I like that you put our documentary in the context of Abramović and Franco -- making the artist a persona in the work in a way that comments on it.
This idea of an artist persona runs counter to the authenticity that seems to be expected of American artists. Contemporary painting is full of this loyalty to painting as an act of conviction -- as being true. What horrified Pollock in the movie that Hans Namuth took of him was that it made his practice appear fake. I can embrace looking fake -- well, actually, it's more that I'm okay with giving the impression that I don't really know what I'm doing. That's interesting to me. It's funny because there's a side to creating where the art becomes autonomous and doubles back on you, making you look like an idiot. Artists are very afraid of that -- not being in control.
I was influenced by this great short documentary by the BBC about the making of an Anya Gallacio sculpture. She'd been given a little grant, and she used the money to make this pillar of soap on the beach at Brighton. You see her preparing and going down to the coast on the train to put the piece up. Her assistants are building what looks a bit like a soap chimney as the tide starts to come in. She's looking on thoughtfully when two men in suits step into frame. They say, "We represent the people of Brighton and Hove, and we believe you've been given £500 of tax payers' money to make this abomination! What do you have to say for yourself?" She replies that she herself is disappointed with the piece. She was hoping it would be more frothy at the bottom. The conversation is hilarious; she agrees with them that it's not a good piece, but her reasons are formal. Eventually the councillors walk away frustrated, leaving Anya staring at the piece as it topples over into the waves. I don't think she intends it to be funny. She's just responding to events. But for me it becomes a whole new artwork -- much closer to what I experience as an artist. Intending something, unsure of the results. Far from the conviction, say, of Matthew Barney's opus or the Richter documentary. Perhaps that's what I understand by your term cultural mediation. The documentary made me think that I could set up the kind of situation Gallacio finds herself in, to talk about issues of theatricality and authenticity in art.
Lummox was directed by Peter Boyd McLean, and we worked together very closely to walk the line between truth and fiction. It's about the preparations for a glam rock performance I put on as part of Art Basel Miami Beach 2005. The director and I appear to butt heads throughout. I'm me, playing me, but there's also this sense that Peter's trying to become me. It's a great example of Lacan's "Destructive Envy." The subject wants to replace the object of desire and in the process destroy the original. On top of that, I'm also this Lummox character. It's why I wanted him to be a glam rocker because in glam the artist can take on multiple personas. In Ziggy Stardust, Bowie is himself first, but he's also Ziggy and the character singing the song. He's even David Jones, the civilian, who became Bowie. It's hard to tell what's real in the movie; I don't seem that pleased with the end result of the performance but that's not the point. I'm not convinced by conclusive answers.
BR: You’ve worked in movies and videos doing scenery, and you've also been in one of Michael Lee Nirenberg’s films. You cross over a lot in an interesting way with different media. Going back a little, can you talk about where you started? Were you always interested in this fluidity of mediums?
MH: I love being in Mike's movies. Slapstick, horror... he's a camp master!
The things I do in other media are always about the issues I have with the convention of painting and its relationship to technology. In Lummox, I was trying to put a figure into my digital landscape pieces. An earlier piece, Landscape in the Figure from 2002, is another way of looking at the same problem. I grew up in North Wales in a holiday resort called Towyn. It was kitschy, filled with caravan sites but surrounded by this daunting romantic landscape. My obsession with the conflict between nature and technology began in 1968 when the government in London sanctioned the flooding of a valley near Bala to provide electricity for cities in England. It was a real insult. The landscape is so much loved by the Welsh.
In the eighties I lived in a squat and played in a band -- a post-punk band called Wow Federation and later a kind of hard-rock/theater-rock band called The Circle of Shit. Both bands were theatrical and satirical, but eventually I became frustrated. I can't really play like I can draw. In 1990 I focused on painting, although I've been creating the pieces on the computer since '98.
A lot of what I want to say in "painting" comes from gestural abstraction. You know... I draw with a pen on a tablet and flip it around, zoom it, stretch it, work it. Computer-made painting is very nonphysical, so a lot of the expression in the gesture has to be faked to a certain extent (www.millree.tumblr.com). I can also make the image more organic by using randomization filters. That's what's happening in my Blue-Chip Mash-Ups. They are giclée prints that combine the work of two different artists whose pieces sold for more than $1 million. I use "Displace" and "Match Color" filters in Photoshop, but without any other manipulations.
I do draw a lot though, with a Sharpie on paper. I really need to keep my hand directly involved with the image, probably because I know it's going to end up on a screen eventually.
BR: It's that crossover that lies at the heart of all of your work that I find interesting. There are a lot of artists, like Hockney, for example, who have made that transition from actual to virtual painting, who don’t seem as compelling to me. It's more a cosmetic thing, rather than developing a new vocabulary in painting to work with.
The interest in interrogating the genuine through the artificial, both in Lummox and in your digital painting, relates a lot to what you're doing now, but we will get to that in a minute. It strikes me that much of what you do is like a visual form of Restoration comedy; you work in really high-profile art forms, yet you both satirize as well as deeply understand the things you're sending up. Is that a close reading?
MH: The satire isn't so much a critical take-down of art world shibboleths It's more about allowing the worst possible thing that could happen to you, happen, albeit in a pantomimic way. Avant-garde theater playwright Young Jean Lee says in an interview that her starting point for writing a play was to think of the worst thing she could think of and do that. So having made Lummox, where I play an artist who really doesn't seem to know what he is doing. I would really like to make a follow-up movie about another "worst thing" an artist can do. Asking the critics to decide exactly what your art should look like. You're right to think of Restoration Comedy, although my favorite caustic playwright comes along a little later. It would be a remake of Sheridan's The Critic.
I've been working as a scenic artist on TV and movies since the eighties. Also, I'm the son of an Anglican priest, and I think there's a relationship there. In church, as with TV, I was given a privileged look at the behind-the-scenes of a highly theatrical presentation. It has probably reinforced my psychological distrust of pat constructs of meaning.
Mostly, though, I'm interested in promoting fearlessness. In the sense that artists shouldn't be afraid to make complete prats of themselves. I think the younger generation of New York artists are playing it very safe. The great shows I've seen recently are mostly made by older artists like Walter Robinson, Dona Nelson, and Judy Linhares I've heard Young Jean Lee speak about producing alternative theater, and she says that she's not afraid to make what she wants because she sees no possibility of it making her rich. I think the hyper-inflated art market is playing havoc with the art. This is the reason I made the Blue-Chip Mash-Ups. Perhaps it's possible to remix reified artworks and make them meaningful again.
BR: This is all totally brought together in the new work…
MH: When I started the Mash-Ups in 2010, my idea was to pick the top ten sellers at auction of the early 2000s and mix the work together, two at a time. We used to have a gloriously horrible best-of-the-year round-up record in Britain in the late eighties called Stars on 45. All the Number 1s of the year would be mixed together to a click track. I wanted the sensation of having the beat on one turntable and the hook on the other. I don't draw on or collage onto the art; I displace the contours of one image relative to another and mix the colors, like pushing faders on a deck.
I soon realized that some things mix better than others. For example much Chinese art of the 2000s retains its qualities no matter how much you mangle the image, but it's so clunky and illustrative. On the other hand, I would lose all sense of a Rudolph Stingel in one pass. So I changed the rules and just took jpegs from anything I fancied on the Artnet site that had made over a million at auction in the last ten years. I began to lose interest in the integrity of the original and whether I liked that artist or not. I let the distortion take over.
By the way, six Mash-Ups are available in an edition size of four for $125 each at Vendevor.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.