Donny Miller creates provocative text-fueled imagery for the 21st century
Donny Miller has a message for you. In fact, for the past two decades the L.A.-based artist has been creating thought-provoking images that combine clip art, self-branding and even pictures of the cosmos with messages that run the gamut from sardonic observations, to social commentary and even encouraging affirmations. In one Miller piece, a still life image of wine, cheese and fruit acknowledges, The hardest thing to do in art is something original. In another, a man and woman reveling in a cloud of confetti and party balloons are sprawled into over-sized champagne glasses, crowned with the header, Enjoy ignorance. A dark-haired woman adjusts her hair, seemingly deep in thought: I’m making new memories because I don’t like the old ones.
While in his early teens, the now 39-year-old Miller deepened his artistic awakening by surrendering to the SoCal skateboarding scene. Miller eventually landed a commercial gig as art director for “Skateboarder Magazine,” while simultaneously honing his craft at creating his fine art creations. Miller is highly skilled at toggling concepts like brand-identification and the juxtaposition of text and images, essentially turning the tools (and weapons) of mass media back on themselves. Miller’s work has been featured in numerous national and international galleries, while he has also been hired on by companies as diverse as Vans shoes, X-Large, Men’s Health Magazine, American Apparel and Rockstar Games. In retrospect, it could be argued that the entire Meme phenomenon was propelled forward in part by Miller’s subversive media blitz and almost-anonymous influence on contemporary graphic design. Yet while Meme Celebrity “Grumpy Cat” now has both an agent and apparent movie deal, Miller continues to quietly generate radical art, seemingly indifferent to the wheel of hype that seems to spin much of the relentless, social media-based imagery.
While Miller considers himself first and foremost a writer/artist, along with his prints he has also created sculptures and engaged in some savvy street art as well, some of which Miller captured on video. In the film “Gas Signs – Truth in Advertising,” Miller plasters a gas station wall with a sign that offers: “We’re proud to bring America’s economy to its knees,” signed with the Shell emblem. “We had record profits and still get huge tax breaks” boasts another strategically placed at a 76 gas station; a company whose actual slogan explains that, “We’re on the driver’s side.” In 2007, on the day before the Academy Awards, Miller plastered a sign on a building on Rodeo Drive that reads. “Coming Soon! Only 99¢!” The film “99 Cents only or What middle class?” features Miller dressed in workers clothes, carrying a ladder and posting his advertisement as a few baffled, Beverly Hills shoppers are seen doing a double-take at this upcoming sale.
Now Northeast Florida art lovers can investigate Miller’s unique vision with his upcoming show at space:eight, continuing the gallery’s current season that has already presented exhibits by Anthony Ausgang, Sarah Emerson and local painter Chip Southworth. While STAREHOUSE tries to be a mere impartial servant to the arts, the Miller show is surely one not to be missed.
The opening reception for Donny Miller’s Ignorance is a Choice is held from 5-11 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2nd at space:eight gallery, 228 W. King St. in St. Augustine. The reception will feature a DJ spinning music and refreshments. The contact number for the gallery is 904-829-2838.
According to the space:eight press release, Miller will not be attending the reception since he “will be out of country conducting migratory animal field studies in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.”
Prior to this alleged exotic expedition, Miller agreed to answer a few questions about his upcoming show and work via e-mail. What follows is a transcription of that interview.
Starehouse: How many pieces do you think will be featured in the upcoming show at space:eight? What kind of printing process do you use?
Donny Miller: 22 pieces; Giclée on Coventry Rag paper.
S: What is the average size of the prints for this show?
D.M.: 22” x 23” signed.
S: In a previous e-mail, you had mentioned a skateboarding company; I recently read in an earlier interview that you did with Film International where you acknowledged that you were into skateboarding when you were a kid. And I have also read that had worked as the art director for “Skateboarder Magazine.” Skateboarding is such an inherently visually charged scene – when you were younger, did that world specifically kind of open up your mind to creating your own art?
D.M.: Skateboarding is the seed of everything I’ve done. I did art anyway before I skated. I started skating when I was really young. I had a fiberglass Hang Ten board; I still have it. It was my brother’s. So, when I was young, there were so many great companies – a great time for skateboarding.
S: In that same e-mail, you had described how you are trying to “transition to pieces with more meaning” and “trying to breakdown the human condition in four words or less…” Could you elaborate on what that “meaning” might be – I guess I am wondering if there is some destination, source or endpoint you are trying to reach?
D.M.: I like taking complex things and making them simple. Condensed.
S: And why are you now attempting to set a kind of self-enforced word count limit on text and phrasing in the work?
D.M.: Part of it has to do with the aesthetic of the piece. Sometimes it just looks right. It’s also a challenge to make meaning out of four words or so. It’s like a street sign:
Almost anyone with a limited command of the English language can understand that.
S: If you could “breakdown the human condition in four words or less” at this very moment,what would those words be?
That’s five words, but again, it looks right.
S: When I look at some of your works from the Fine Art (good for walls) series, particularly in pieces such as The next time you feel really good, just keep feeling that way the rest of your life or All tragedies become romantic memories, I perceive those as positive or even hopeful statements; but they could also be read as sarcastic commentaries on feelings, emotions and memory. In some of your pieces, do you deliberately leave the message ambiguous or play with dualities?
D.M.: Yes, I don’t want to tell anyone how to feel about something. When I look at a many of those pieces I think of a little kid writing them. I made a lot of them over 10 years ago. When I think about what I was into then, what my life was like, it’s primitive. They’re cool, they’re part of me.
S: Or am I quite possibly just a sappy person who is looking for some positive, uplifting message in your work?
D.M.: I think deep down we all are. I know I am. Life is better when you’re positive and this is coming from someone who used to be super negative and hung up on stupid shit. It’s better to grow. Otherwise, people turn out like overgrown teenagers.
S: You had also told me that “really I’m a writer who can draw, paint and make conceptual works.” Who are a few of your favorite past and present writers that inspire you?
D.M.: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Kennedy Toole, Albert Lincoln Camus, etc… I only like writers with middle names. William Shitbucket Faulkner. A lot of people don’t know William’s family started the toilet industry. William Carlos Williams. I just added him, but I never read any of his works. Eakert (sic) Epilepsy Tolle is great. Joyce Carol Oates. She’s not my favorite, but she has a floating eye and a middle name. There are a lot of other ones. Antonio Carlos Jobim.
S: Did your attempts at writing precede your interest in visual art?
D.M.: They happened at the exact same time. I had a paint brush in one hand and a pen in the other.
S: In the process of creating a piece do you begin with a “text”-based idea or a visual image?
D.M.: Usually text first.
S: Considering that you utilize all of the above abilities – drawing, painting and writing – as well as street and video art, when you initially began creating art, did you ever struggle with trying to find a way to hone all of those disciplines?
D.M.: When I very first began, I didn’t know what I wanted exactly. Like when I was 19, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a painter, then a writer, but I didn’t have the focus and I let girls get in the way of my life. They were a waste of time. If you’re reading this and there’s a girl or boy in your life who doesn’t believe in you, DUMP THEM NOW. I wasted too much time with stupid people, but I ended up making some art from it. It was my destiny – my sufferin’ art.
S: Did you have any projects or concepts that just fell completely flat on their face?
D.M.: Totally. If any artist says that doesn’t happen, they’re lying. I just put them away and they don’t see the light of day. Just act as though nothing happened. “What? Oh, that thing? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Grieve privately.
S: If so, what do you think you learned from that kind of experience?
D.M.: Plan. Be graceful and don’t burn any bridges.You really don’t know who you may need later or who will come back into your life with a giant sack of money for you. Believe me, it happens.
S: While some of the pieces seem to be inherently playful or driven by social commentary, some of the Fine Art works seem like they are posing questions that are digging deeper into who we are, almost based on a form of self-inquiry: Expectations are disappointments in disguise; Maybe I like making the same mistakes over and over again?; I’m making new memories because I don’t like the old ones; A lot can change between here and here. What compelled you to make those specific pieces?
D.M.: Expectations are disappointments in disguise.
That was actually what I thought when I saw the mask, the picture, not the movie. I had had some experience with disappointment.
Maybe I like making the same mistakes over and over again?
I think I saw the sponge and thought about that, but it was something I felt I did at the time a lot. And I saw it a lot in other people. It was almost as though they enjoyed making the mistake to fill their bored lives.
I’m making new memories, because I don’t like the old ones.
A lot can change between here and here.
That actually was a play on a Captain Beefheart lyric: “I just looked at myself and from here to there, it ain’t far enough, but from here to here, it’s too short.” [lyric taken from “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” from Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band’s 1982 album, “Ice Cream for Crow.”] I wish I could have met him. Then I was thinking of that in relationship to the width of a woman’s head and how much can change in that area.
S: Are these questions, statements and observations the results of any kind of disciplined and deliberate contemplation, meditation, etc…?
D.M.: Not those ones. I was just having fun. My mind kind of thinks in those phrases a lot. I do meditate a lot and some of the universe work I’ve done is a result of that.
S: I see your work as being based on a blend of everything from euphemisms, proverbs, maxims and affirmations to marketing slogans and campaigns, branding, etc… Do you think the familiarity and even bluntness of some of these messages helps trigger a more pure response from the viewer?
D.M.: I think it’s targeted. Some people have said they’re too blunt. I say to them, “Stop being such an over-sensitive pot smoker.”
S: I don’t mean in the sense that you are trying to manipulate the audience; but rather that their own comfort with sayings and slogans might keep them engaged and hopefully even provoke some kind of thoughtful experience from seeing your art.
D.M.: When I first did these, the point was making pieces that were like an advertisement: slogan, product/model, manufacturer. That’s the formula, in a way. I was the manufacturer that used models or products with slogans to make art.
S: The Universe Series features images of the cosmos with statements that are even more direct and brief. They also seem mostly optimistic. I guess I really see your work as becoming increasingly based more on personal insight and a kind of awakening rather than what might have been formerly sardonic or political. Do you agree with that observation?
D.M.: Yes. It has more to do with me figuring out why I’m here. Why are you here? Why are you reading this? Your whole life has come to this. Why or what is the significance? I suppose you need to go to the show and see for yourself.
S: Do you feel that in your life you are becoming increasingly more of an optimist?
D.M.: After years of being on the pessimistic side, I’ve found that it’s mostly an energy thing. Some of the worst pessimists turn out to be the most positive people. Things can turn around for anyone. Not to say, nothing bad ever happens to the person who is positive, but his reaction changes. That’s the point many people miss. That’s the point many allow themselves to become derailed from their positivity.
S: Also, are these pieces from the Universe Series intended to be direct statements and transmissions sent by the actual Universe to humanity; or does this simply touch on your above comments about creating works with “more meaning”?
D.M.: There’s something about celestial bodies that quiets the mind, to me anyway. They’re beautiful. It’s like a sunset. No one ever looks at a sunset and thinks it’s stupid. It can’t be. It’s too much to comprehend and the beauty is overwhelming. You can make a lot of things, but you can’t make a sunset or a nebula. I want to make a nebula. I’m going to have to call NASA.
S: Along with creating your own separate body of art, you have also done commercial work for a variety of companies, including Vans, Nike, Adidas, Orbit Chewing Gum and even Nickelodeon. Other than the (hopefully) reliable payment, do you think these types of (for lack of a better wording) controlled settings have also helped you in reassessing your own approach with your personal, non-commercial work?
D.M.: These are the reason I know how to read contracts so well. So, does it make me rethink my approach to my own work? Sure. I’m able to broker high level deals with ease. The one thing that makes artists eat it a lot is that they don’t know anything about the legal side of what it is they’re doing. But if you understand these things, you’ll be good. Here’s a freebie: If you ever come across “derivative works” take all of that language out.
S: Have there been any notable (if you feel comfortable naming them) commercial gigs you have turned down since they seemed like too much of a compromise or made you feel too uncomfortable, greasy and prostituted in dealing with the company?
D.M.: There are so many scumbags out there, but I wouldn’t name them, because I wouldn’t give them any association with me whatsoever.
S: You have created fine art prints, street art, commercial art, video work, sculpture, installations and even had a book published with 2006’s “Beautiful People with Beautiful Feelings.” Is there some other medium or creative realm that you feel like you haven’t explored that might be beneficial to where your art is heading next?
D.M.: Mmmm… I have a few things I’m doing.
Daniel A. Brown