Art is dead
At least, that was the expression I was hearing a lot over the last few years. I was an art critic and my friends and family liked to tell me that art, in fact, was dead and had been for years. Sometimes I was ready to agree with them; I spent so much time in galleries, looking at the new exhibitions – the splattered messes, bland colours, repetitive photographs and overused geometry that people considered “feeling”, knowing full-well that most of the feeling expressed was probably furstation at not having any emotions or messages actually worth painting. Sure, occasionally there would be the one guy or girl with a proper message, something they really wanted to get out there, with the proper technique to express themselves in a real way.
Those were the good days; I’d go in to the magazine I worked at with an article I had actually enjoyed writing. But for the most part it was the same reviews, the same critiques and observations for the same dull, meaningless pieces of work. I was beginning to doubt the point of both their and my work, and complete apathy towards visiting galleries, let alone writing.
That is until the day I met Art Mills.
I had not seen any of his work in public collections or galleries. His studio was never open but he was making quite a name for himself in private, niche (and, I must add, wealthy) circles. His name was a mystery and I wanted my readers to share in the curiosity I had for him and experience the work which these private collectors refused to show the world.
After some time, I managed to secure an interview with him, in his own studio. It was difficult to find any means of contacting him, but after I did I was surprised to hear he was more than pleased to oblige me, as if he was keener to get his work out in the public eye than I had originally thought.
That evening, I travelled to his small Brooklyn studio following the instructions he had given me, and had brought along my usual gear – a camera, notebook and tape recorder. The interview was scheduled for five o’clock in the evening and the sun had almost completely set. The November air made me shiver. The building he had instructed me to go to certainly looked like a modern art studio; it was a single storey, built from concrete and had large, darkened windows all alongside the wall. I wondered if he owned the whole thing. It looked overly large. Maybe he worked with some other people. I considered that briefly and thought how interesting it would be to do multiple stories on the people who worked inside the studio.
A minute had passed, I noticed. I was about to knock again, when the door opened in one wide motion. For some seconds, I could not see the man standing in the darkened corridor; it had simply seemed like the door had magically opened by itself. He gestured me in.
“Sorry about the lighting situation in here,” he said. His voice was smooth, but trembled slightly.
We walked down the dark, lengthy corridor which I noticed had no doors on either wall. I thought back to the front of the building, to all the blacked-out windows there were. There had to be rooms beyond the walls of the hallway. I guess the building wasn’t entirely his. I noticed a small door at the end, paint peeling off and slightly ajar, with a faint grey light coming from it.
“This is where I do all of my work,” he said, as we made our way through the door. We had entered into a sort of courtyard. The part of the building that was his was almost entirely outside. He had a large spotlight in a corner, which emitted an annoying white light. I looked around – there was a small building, not much bigger than a tool shed, at the far end of the yard. It must be where he kept all his things or went inside when it rained. There were various items scattered all around – large and in a shape which suggested they were machines, or made from scrap metal – but I couldn’t tell, as everything was covered by large white sheets. It was like nothing I had ever seen in the business. There was a small wooden table and a stool tucked away in a corner with some books and large sheets of paper strewn around, with brushes and pencils in a plastic holder. Asking his permission to take photos (which he accepted), I took out my tape recorder and began to record.
“So, um, Mr Mills,” I said, thinking now would be a good time to start talking. “You’re really popular among small private collectors. What sort of work do you do?”
“I try to make art,” he said, taking his seat at the stool while I looked around the open area, taking photographs.
“What do you mean exactly by ‘art’?”
“Whatever people are defining it by, you could say. Whatever really describes art for the time. I try to keep up with the trends, to adapt to changing circumstances. What would you say art is?”
“I don’t think I could say,” I replied, truthfully. I touched one of the white sheets but Mills told me not to lift them. I obeyed.
“Art is ever-changing,” he said, playing around with a pencil. “And what I do is exactly that.”
“So is that what makes you so popular amongst the small art-dealing communities, would you say? What would you attribute your popularity to?”
“I’d say you’re right. I do what people want, I guess.”
I had already written the first part of the article in my mind. This was all very strange, but it had a genuine weirdness about it, unlike some of the other artist studios I had visited.
“I should show you some of my work, then,” he said. “My recent stuff, and then we can get into more detail.” He stood up and walked towards the front of the yard, where I noticed for the first time not only the door leading to the front, but also two others, one on either side. So I guess he did own the whole building.
He made his way to the door on the right, with me following him, and opened it. The room was black inside and I couldn’t see a thing, but I could hear a faint buzzing sound. It didn’t smell very good either.
“I try to follow the fashions,” said Mills, taking several steps into the room and disappearing into the darkness.
There was a click, and the lights turned on.
The rest of the evening went by in a haze. Everything felt so strange to me after that point that I sometimes refused to believe it happened. I ended up not publishing the article, instead I went for some Dutch painter who expressed his anger through the colour red.
But I think back to the night at Mills’ studio. There was certainly a predominant theme throughout his work, at least the stuff he showed me.
Maybe I had misheard the expression all this time. Art certainly wasn’t dead.
Maybe the expression was “Art is Death”