Sculpting in paint, Calgary artist Chris Millar creates spectacularly detailed 3D works that push the conventions of the form.
BY: Katherine Ylitalo
Chris Millar is arguably the most inventive, unorthodox young artist to emerge in Calgary in the last decade. Nimble-minded, he folds in hi-lo references to popular idioms, phrases, jokes, games, rituals, art, outsider art, architecture, music, TV shows, sci-fi, heroes, anti-heroes and characters of his own making, creating concoctions of mind-boggling density and visual wonder.
Millar makes art out of paint, building the medium up on a flat surface into three dimensions. In his early work, he layered paint on canvas and board, but soon began to use the dried skin of acrylic as a structural material, pouring, stretching, cutting and adhering tiny pieces of paint to build intricate sculptures. Over the last seven years, each of his works has drawn the viewer into a convoluted, irreverent, and absurd story.
His first foray into storytelling, Friend (2004/5), incorporated an involved story around the characters from Star Trek. The canvas initially reads like a large-scale comic book, tracking left to right in horizontal lines, but Millar soon decided to reposition the flow of images so that narratives could loop, coil, overlap and twist across the canvas. Shortly thereafter, he added small, three-dimensional objects, made all of paint, to inch out from the edges — a taco on Twas, miniature record albums on Facebiter.
In conversation in his Calgary basement apartment/studio, Millar says, “I could see the potential of making the work totally three-dimensional as a way of being able to include even more tangents in the story.” Consider him beyond modernism and post-modernism. He has cheekily called his work “post-interesting.”
His newest sculpture is 370H55V (2011), a hugely ambitious, exquisitely crafted work that took seven months to complete. “This one,” Millar says, “is crazy.” As if rising in an imaginary spiral force-field, the spacecraft-like form lifts from a pool of transparent resin on the floor to human height. Multi-tiered, every part and every surface is carefully considered, even the undersides. Visual games and wordplay abound — read the license plate (that doubles as the title) upside down.
The elaborate vessel appears to be lured into the cosmic void, chasing after the carrot dangling on a fishing line at its prow. The purpose of the voyage is unclear, but on close inspection, we realize we’re seeing the ship at a moment of peril, when creative endeavors on several platforms are teetering between brilliance and disaster. You can read it as a kind of medieval Sci-Fi illumination, an architecture of amoral meditations that constitute the struggle Millar grapples with in the studio. He describes it as “the tension between making something and wanting to destroy it as you’re making it. It’s the act of making something beautiful and possibly destroying it every step of the way.”
At the centre of the work, the house of cards (700 of them, each scaled down from a Civil War Poker deck to measure a mere 20 x 13 millimeters) is a technical tour de force, and an effective metaphor for a flimsy structure in danger of collapse. Almost every addition he makes seems to increase the potential for destruction, testing the amount of creative critical mass the work can bear.
If the work is an outward manifestation of creative process teetering on the edge, Millar’s own feet are more firmly planted on the ground. Since graduation from the Alberta College of Art & Design in 2000 with a BFA, major in painting, he’s exhibited in solo and group shows in Alberta, across Canada, in Chicago and Madrid. In 2007, he was selected as the first runner-up in the RBC national Painting Competition for artists under 30. In 2009, the Calgary Public Library Foundation gave him an Art of the Book Award for Simon & Farfenougan & Hunter.
The National Gallery of Canada recently purchased Millar’s major three-dimensional narrative, Bejeweled Double Festooned Plus Skull for Girls (2009), which was featured in Timeland: 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Alberta. In September 2011, TrépanierBaer Gallery in Calgary will debut 370H55V and launch the record multiple,Gutterballs. In 2012, Nancy Tousley will curate a mini-retrospective of Millar’s work since 2004 at the Art Gallery of Alberta.
Born in Claresholm, Alberta, Millar’s family moved to Lethbridge when he was five, and later to Sherwood Park where his father, Dr. Garnet Millar, worked as an educational psychologist for the province of Alberta and authored books on creativity. His mother became an accomplished quilter and his younger brother, Adam, grew up to be a novelist.
Pursuing a Fine Arts Diploma at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton was a natural step, and Millar flourished in the classes taught by Darcy Mallon and Cheri Moses. When he moved to Calgary to continue his studies at ACAD, his teachers included Chris Cran, Bill Rogers, Mary Scott and Bill MacDonnell.
“In terms of content, I didn’t realize that you could make art and jokes at the same time,” Millar says about moving from one school to another. “At Grant MacEwan, we were encouraged to make work that was more about identity and politics. It was an ironic twist to be with people making things that were ridiculous and kind of ‘dumb art,’ a reaction to that kind of ‘smart art.’” Millar aligns himself with music more than visual art, adding, “It seemed really punk rock to be comfortable about playing with materials and not being super intellectual.”
Millar recalls his studio mate Patrick Lundeen (now a full-time dad in New York City) as his biggest inspiration at ACAD. “We pushed each other to take our ideas further. We started shopping at Crafts Canada — buying tons of glitter and doll’s hair. When we went to Toys ‘R’ Us and Patrick bought all the plastic swords they had, that’s when I realized you didn’t have to use fine art material to make art. He pushed the limits of bad taste and super irony, playing the role of bad artist and homophobic racist. He stopped doing that kind of work after 9/11. He said that people hate each other for real now; you can’t joke about it. I’m still interested in bad art and bad music.”
It may help define Millar’s aesthetic by noting that he listens mostly to grindcore, death metal and black metal, with some folk and blues thrown in. “Music for underdogs, that’s what I like.”
After art school, Millar worked briefly as a house painter, a stock boy at Grand & Toy and a gallery assistant at Stride Gallery before landing a job at Livingstone & Cavell Extraordinary Toys that sustained him for eight years. Millar’s move to Chicago in 2008 marked a commitment to full-time studio practice without having to rely on other part-time jobs. After a year and a half, he returned to Calgary, where he’s had a period of great productivity and positive critical attention. Because his methods are so time-consuming, he’s limited in the number of pieces he can make, but most are already in public and private collections.
“It’s a risky profession when you don’t make a lot of things. In 2010, I made four things,” he says. “That’s why I’ve opted to make more multiples. My goal is to make this next record project accessible for people like friends and art students to buy.” When I asked, “Where do you go next?” he answered, “I think I’ve taken detail and craft as far as I can. Now it’s the narrative arc — a grand narrative over years, that’s where I’d like to take it. I also hope to travel to Europe for the first time.”
Chris Millar will have a solo exhibition at the TrepanierBaer Gallery in Calgary September 8 to October 8, 2011; and a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton January 27 to April 9, 2012.