Mike Mills and the Beautiful Losers
Which is what makes the loose collective of artists known as the ‘beautiful losers’ so fascinating. These scruffy, non-conformist, never-grown-up, skater-boy and punk artists from the east and west coast of the USA haven’t just bent that rule, they’ve tied it into a balloon animal, like a clown at a birthday party. Rather than sell out, they’ve been sought out.
They’re graffiti artists turned muralists, a skateboarder-turned-photographer, doodlers turned pro doodlers and “regular freaks” turned “cool freaks.”
From a commercial point of view, Mike Mills is the most interesting of the group. The 43 year-old speaks of the mainstream as if it were his first love: a high-school cheerleader that jilted him as a boy. His life since has been a quest to prove to her she made a huge mistake. And, yes, the mainstream is now courting him.
“...I don’t really find any corner of the world safe. To me the art world is at least as complicated and duplicitous -- and actually more about money than the ad world. Or can be...”
The small time graphic artist and sometime musician still makes album covers, poster art and music videos for friends, from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to Blonde Redhead, Sonic Youth to former band mates Cibo Matto, but his bread and butter nowadays comes from shooting big budget commercials for international campaigns. His clients include Volkswagen, Apple, Mastercard, GAP and DuPont.
Interestingly enough, Mills doesn’t just shoot commercials to pay for his own film-making projects -- his fourth feature-length film is cast and ready to commence shooting in the northern autumn -- he also does it as a creative outlet. And for sheer pleasure.
He explained by phone from Los Angeles that he had “tried to quit” in 2005 but “started up again” last year. While admitting that advertising is “a complicated problem of consumer society” and that advertising, by definition, is ‘specious’, it is, he says, “the best and only way” he can make money as a director, and one of the few ways he gets to use his skills.
Rather than ask Mills to adapt his style for their campaigns, his clients want what he does. And does uniquely. Even his purely commercial work (see www.humans.jp) is indistinguishable from, well, art!
“Early on, I got to do [some] very creative ads for Nike. They were very successful -- deemed successful in the ad world. So, weirdly, when I do ads, I get treated like a king. I get treated like an artist. [Everyone is] deferential to my opinion and respects me and all that. When I was doing my feature film, no-one deferred to me at all!”
Asked if there’s any meaningful distinction to be made between commercial and fine art, he responds: “I don’t really find any corner of the world safe, or a safe haven. To me the art world is at least as complicated and duplicitous -- and actually more about money than the ad world. Or can be. So whatever world you’re operating in is fraught with complications and ways to be untrue to yourself. It’s a constant negotiation.”
“Again, it’s not like all fine art is commercial art, but it’s just as [easy for it] to be commercial... Our world is actually quite good at pretending -- at hiding -- that money and competition and consumerism is what drives it, or is a big part of it. For years, it’s mastered the art of disguising its financial basis, you know what I mean?”
Asked if it will be easier for the next generation of street artists, coming from x-box and gamer culture, to be swallowed up by the commercial world than his generation, Mills is thoughtful.
After a disclaimer that he has “no idea about big general cultural things” and “what’s making what happen” he continues: “in any scene, any generation, there’s gonna be people that just don’t fit in. That have whatever it is... the self-absorption, or the self-strength, or maybe just they’re so wildly insecure and desperate that they don’t follow the rules, whatever the rules are [at] that time.”
His own quest is to keep “hope and fluidity and flexibility alive.” To do that, he says, “you have to keep your eyes open, no matter where you’re working.”
Aaron Rose’s documentary Beautiful Losers has a couple of screenings at the new Speakeasy Cinema tonight and next Friday, November 6. (And wot a bloody fascinating idea that is... get a film and a feed -- burger and beverage -- for twenty-odd bucks. It sounds quite the hangout too.) There are some Sydney screenings coming up. The first is at Paddington Town Hall on November 21 at 6pm. Watch this space (and this one) for details.
Mike Mills’ web site is www.mikemillsweb.com
Beautiful Losers is also be available on DVD through Madman Entertainment.