Q&A with artist Wyatt Mills
Phantasmagoria. A flickering sequence of images as seen in a dream. A subtle attack on the senses, bound in the blur of passing a stranger and trying to remember what they look like. Dalí lived it, Freud favored it, Monet tapped into it, and Kahlo flirted with it. An efficacious foray into a state of discomfort, that fails to speak a thousand words—but slowly shrieks each and every one.
For Artist Wyatt Mills, phantasmagoria lies in the glorification of the darker side of the human psyche. His emotionally charged, multilayered oeuvre embellishes a radical turn inward to discomfort that situates Mills amongst his early predecessors—the likes of Francis Bacon, Natalie Frank, Daniel Richter, and Adrian Ghenie. Mills coalesces ambiguity with a sense of trauma and disillusion, fusing together incongruous feelings of attraction and repulsion. Playing on this push and pull conversation consolidated in the space of the canvas, each painting is an invitation into an alien world of radical exploration and raw emotion characteristic to the idiosyncratic artist. His contorted portraiture demonstrates a subtle fusion of abstract and classical style as dramatic colors bleed into distorted faces seemingly tormented by existential realities of the twenty-first century. A huge fan of post war German art, Mills talks to us from his Berlin studio—which also happens to be a former Stasi prison camp—about his visceral oeuvre, grotesque use of classical and abstract, and his serendipitous creative process.
You have lived and worked in both New York and Los Angeles, but you recently made the move to Berlin. How has that informed the nature of your art? What brought on this big move?
I am a firm believer that change forces growth and I think that the act of taking risks whether in life or making art is kind of like a muscle in your brain that you need to exercise. I think I came to Berlin in search of discomfort and I wanted to interrupt the routine I was in. You’re in this space where you’re nobody and you have to prove to yourself who you are again, it kind of reinforces what you’re doing in the first place.
Your paintings are often reflective of self-doubt, internal dramas, and modern day anxieties. Where did your interest in the human psyche begin?
I think the darker side of the psyche needs to be glorified more so people don’t think it’s some like foreign weird thing, that they don’t feel bad for having it. I wanted to paint the side that celebrates it as something we all go through and it’s something we need to go through in order to evolve—if you don’t have criticism, you can’t evolve and you just end up in this sad state of delusion.
It’s interesting to see the way you distort anatomy with distorted images to create this whole surreal experience.
I learned like classical, traditional oil painting when I was like 14 and 15. And it’s so hard to break out of that sometimes because you want to show that you can do that. The freedom of leaving it halfway through and starting a new thing is really how I think you can better depict an actual emotion.
You also challenge perceptions of beauty and normality in your work, what does normal mean to you?
My last solo show in L.A. I actually called “Normal.” It’s so normal to feel out of place but so out of place to suggest there’s something wrong with normal. We’re all going through this internal drama of some sort, and we sometimes think we’re the only ones going through it. I was trying to paint what is right behind the mask we put on to deal with everyday situations. There’s no such thing as normal, I don’t think. Normal is acting a certain way so people don’t put you in the crazy hospital.
Your work is very visceral in playing with viewer perspective amongst large, seemingly unplanned brush strokes and bold colors. How do you accomplish creating this individual experience?
That is something I really enjoy. I like to add just a few hints of familiar imagery—just enough so that it resembles a clouded memory of something. There are a few anchors that the brain can identify and the rest is like a foggy cloud for them to make up something. And that’s the weird thing, you never know what’s going on in someone’s head. And when people tell me about what they see, you can get a second of it. One of the best compliments I’ve ever had was when this little kid came into my studio with his parents and stared at the most messed up one and said, “Mommy I feel like that sometimes.”
Your paintings are often said to resemble a Rorschach inkblot test in their ability to reveal a lot about the subliminal mind. What has making these paintings revealed to you about your own inner psyche?
Every time I make something that looks too easy or familiar, like something I’ve already done, that’s when I try to go over it. We can never see another person’s perspective—only through playing with our own can we try to begin to understand it. I think by obscuring the familiar, the opportunity of discovering the unknown comes into play. It’s about embracing randomness and going against what you usually do.
Written by Jasmine Ashoori