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I met Dan Mills early in my undergraduate college career when he was the Director/Curator of the Gibson Gallery at State University of New York, College at Potsdam.  Dan has been creating art for over two decades, making multi-media works that comment on current and past political and social events.  Recently, I caught up with Dan at the cusp of concurrent exhibition openings at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Zolla/Liberman Gallery Chicago. In part 1 of the interview, we discuss his earlier works.

–Christina Ely

Christina: Dan, you have been creating art for twenty-five years. Talk a little about the progression of your work over time, and about the basis for your ideas.  

Dan: When I moved into Chicago in the early 1980s, I was essentially creating three-dimensional paintings. I had attended graduate school at the School of Art at Northern Illinois University, and feel fortunate to have been there at a really good moment, one filled with significant experimentation, many smart and creative peers, and when many of the faculty were very active as artists, exhibiting and engaged with the Chicago art scene.

Anyway, the work I began making was painted found object constructions, and I gathered the materials from buildings that were being gutted or demolished in both distressed and gentrifying neighborhoods. Initially, the work focused on forms derived from rural vernacular architecture. I was an art mover at the time and was driving throughout the Midwest and becoming attuned to its distinct structures and landscape and palette, which were quite different to someone who grew up in the Northeast.

After investigating and developing a process for this visual and material/construction vocabulary, I turned my interests to the source of the materials—urban buildings. My interest turned more and more to thinking about the anonymous history that had taken place in the modest buildings that were the source of my materials. These were quite successful, I think, were exhibited extensively, and collected in Chicago.

Urban Building Facade No. 2, 1986-87, acrylic on found polychromed wood, 37″ x 64″ x 4″

Homage To Mopetown, 1990, Found (polychromed) wood, brick, hardware, 49 1/2 x 52 x 11″

One of the culminating works was Homage to Mopetown, a construction made from materials gathered from the last remaining house in a south side neighborhood that had been zoned out of existence, with blocks being replaced by large municipal projects such as highways, rail lines. The brick side of the house had fallen, exposing the apartments inside. The wood and bricks were gathered from the building. By this point, I was no longer painting glazes onto the constructions, a process I had used to formally unify the constructions.

So my interests had evolved, to thinking much more about ideas including gentrification, displacement, and the lives lived in the building sites that were supplying me with raw materials, than the earlier more formal and architectonic interests.

Around the time of the Quincentennial of…insert euphemism here…The First Encounter, The Discovery of the New World, Columbus’s Discovery of America, I began incorporating collage into my work, and quickly found that this process of adding a new and potentially more specific vocabulary of found material into my work worked well with my interests. So at a time when I was thinking a great deal about the meaning of this anniversary, and so much of the discussion around it—which often omitted history in favor of political positions. I began to read a lot about this, and began to make work that was my way of investigating these ideas.

(Re) View (1492), 1992-93, collage on wood, 20 1/2 x 52 x 2 1/4″.

(Native) American Story Quilt–A Patchwork Comforter, 1996-97, acrylic and collage on map, 67 x 47 x 3″

From that point on, the work became my way of making sense of the world around me, historic and current, and became my way to comment on this, critically and sometimes with humor. One particularly successful series is the Map Paintings, which thinks about imperialism and colonialism, and are paint and collage on roll-down schoolhouse maps.  Many works since this time employ, are made on or with maps.

Christina: Your work is largely based on political events nationally and internationally. Explain how events of the time resulted in your series Morphs (2005) and American Icons (2005-2007).

Dan: This is true. Beginning in the early 2000s, much work from this time was responding to our government’s global and military actions and its ways of negotiating with other countries in the world. The American Icons is a series of watercolors that visually combine political figures and their (unflattering) cartoon or comic alter egos. I spent considerable time thinking about what fictional character best embodies some of the characteristics of the political figure. I think of them as archetypal images; art/political cartoon-images that will represent the era for years to come.

Yosemite Rumsfeld, 2006, watercolor on paper, 14″ x 11″

Dick Burns, 2005, watercolor on paper, 14″ x 11″

The Morphs are 8’ long paintings that transform a map/symbol of the US into various other symbol forms that seemed appropriate to the time: an assault rifle, attack helicopter, and eagle. The eagle is not one of the more stylized and benign eagle symbols commonly used now, but looked back to the early 19th century when we depicted the raptor more naturalistically, as a muscular bird with more aggressive talons and beak.

These and other works of this time continue my approach—making sense of the world around me through my work—but with a specifity not seen previously. Working this way risks having one’s art not stand the test of time, I suppose, but if it’s strong work, my thinking is that it does, and as time passes, it also represents a way of thinking at that time that, too, becomes historic.

In part 2 of the interview we will discuss Dan’s recent works and exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center and Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.

All photographs are Courtesy of the Artist.

See Dan’s work on exhibition or visit the following websites:

Dan Mills: Quest, Zolla/Lieberman Gallery,Chicago, through 8.25.

Dan Mills: US Future States Atlas and related material, the Chicago Cultural Center, through 9.23.

Not the Usual Politics, Rose Contemporary, Portland, ME (group show)

View more of Dan Mills’ work on his website.