Society has a natural inclination to elevate artistic individuals who distinguish themselves through profound expression onto unrealistic pedestals; looking up to successful personalities, treating them like emotionally infallible demi-gods of creativity. Often forgetting, that it’s the delicate nature, fragile sensibilities and universal vulnerabilities of the person behind the medium, married with their inclination to withdraw into themselves, which has allowed them the introspective, intellectual space and time to create a body of work which reflects their developed personas. A process, which ironically propels the artist back into the spotlight, towards the world and attitudes they were trying to comprehend, respond to, and satirise through their art work.
It is the tireless questioning and fruitless quests to rationalise infinity which leaves some artists suspended in a nihilistic, self-anaesthetised reality. On an unbalanced planet with as much to celebrate as there is to lament, artists are left no vehicle for escape except through that of expression. It is their beautified melancholia and often celebrated self-destruction which paradoxically, uplifts, inspires and awakens latent longings in all those who engage their work with an intention to understand and a willingness to receive.
Torn between a distaste for the modern world and every artist’s oxygen-like desire for an audience, Russ Mills (who presents his work under the moniker of ‘Byroglyphics’) is one of the UK’s most interesting and well-known contemporary artists, and is an example of a creative soul-searcher squinting in the glare of expectation and exposure.
Visually, Mills has a powerful and all encompassing mastery over his aesthetic, and if imitation is the ultimate compliment, then Mills has a lifetime’s supply of good-will in reserve. His works dwell in the netherworld between traditional fine art and contemporary digital illustration; projecting a profoundly graphic, dynamic and natural understanding of the complexities of anatomy, movement and the subtle details which allow artworks to feel alive.
Referencing thematics of superficiality and the absurdity of human nature, his works feature longing sirens whispering abstracted secrets from emancipated worlds of experimentation and focus; martyrs for the cause and feminine totems holding court “in a patriarchal society that spins the illusion of equality, whilst maintaining male dominance at the core”.
A prolific creator of works that are as disorientating as they are reassuring; Mills, akin to a blood-soaked carnivore gorging on the carcass of visual, visceral stimuli, creates artworks born from an undeniable and unapologetic personal reality. His subjects are like the last scarred nomads on the artist’s Ark, wistfully gazing into space as the first new sunrise crests the never-ending ocean, each muse too beautiful to fully relinquish themselves to the idea that there’s no utopia past the horizon.
Ignorance is a dull interpretation of bliss. Art, in the broadest conceivable sense, manifests fleeting nirvanas for each of us – a slice of fantasy and philosophical escapism which only exists in the moment of creation, during the suspension of the conscious mind and the engagement of the dream-like nether regions of the human psyche- when the weight of insecurity floats like a feather and we step into our potential and feel powerful. It’s amid these fragments of time that our dreams seem close enough to touch, the world seems conquerable and our conditioned insecurities dissolve into obscurity, as we catch glimpses of what it means to feel free, in the truest sense of the word.
Words: James Watkins.
Let’s start with some basics. What is your full name? When were you born? What is today’s date? Where do you live? How was the weather today?
15th July 2012.
Dartmouth, Devon, UK.
Can you please list five things about yourself we might be surprised to learn?
I spend 90% of each day in silence.
I once interviewed Candian ‘rockers’ Nickleback at Brixton Academy.
I used to be a DJ.
I can walk up the stairs on my hands.
I used to sell precision engineering parts over the phone.
Why is it important for you to be a practicing artist? What are you aiming to achieve and communicate visually and thematically with your own work?
In common with many other practicing artists, I’m no longer employable in any other field. Producing artwork breaks down the barrier of crippling shyness that I endure day to day and allows me to communicate in a way that otherwise would be impossible.
I aim to produce as much movement as possible in a still image, I majored in animation at college, so still have a passion for the moving image. I try and keep my work ambiguous, so the viewer can make up their own narrative.
What is your ethos in relation to your own artistic principles and practices?
Stay as true to myself as is humanly possible. Keep people confused.
You’re a self confessed hermit that “doesn’t see too much natural light”. You live in a small town away from big city hustle and bustle and your work explores superficiality, isolation and social ideals. Tell us about your escapism into your artworks and why you sometimes prefer fantasy over reality.
The manufactured world we live in gets more ridiculous with each passing day. I try and avoid interacting with it as much as I can without being completely cut off; the media is a machine able to control every facet of human existence with ease. The less I know about what particular injustice occurred on what day the happier I am.
My artwork is simply a way to further shut off the white noise of the day to day. However, it is far from the be all and end all, just staring at the sky provides more solace than trying to fathom the insanity ever could.
What are your very earliest memories of drawing? What stages has your art developed through on the journey? What visual curiosities are you exploring at the moment?
Infant school, I remember being far more enthusiastic about drawing my stories than writing them. My observational skills probably peaked when I was twenty, there was a steady decline thereafter. Stuff I did at art college and university still has a direct impact on my thought process, collage of one form or another has always been a staple. I used objects to make collage at art school, then video to make animated collage at university.
The stuff I do now is fundamentally the same. Drawing has always been the prop that underpins the whole lot. I’ll probably return to using objects in the next stage of work, probably bits of the computer that I’ll ceremonially destroy when the transition has been successfully made.
What are your thoughts in regards to purists who see digital art as a lesser medium? How has experimenting with traditional techniques blended with digital freedoms allowed you to develop as an artist? Has it taught you anything you could not have learnt from traditional methods alone?
Purists can find fault with any given circumstance, it doesn’t warrant discussion. Experimentation in blending traditional techniques within the digital mixer allows me to get an unexpected result with the minimum of stress and leave the viewer unsure of what they’re seeing.
It’s taught me what I like to see from my work, something I find difficult to define in traditional media alone.
You called the internet your favourite art gallery. How significant has the internet been in your exposure, development and success as an artist?
The internet has been the perfect vehicle for an unassuming person such as myself to get work seen and has allowed me to make a living without submitting to employment. It was a great assistant to my development at first, though more recently it has made me question what I’m doing to an absurd degree, that is more a fault of mine.
You now enjoy the lifestyle freedoms from art related income, but still discuss your sense of “self imposed inferiority”. How would you describe your ascent from artistic obscurity to relative fame in contemporary art circles? Has this creative validation changed your sense of contentment or how you feel about yourself, and your art works?
In perspective I’ve had a degree of success preferable to no success at all. I think I may have become net savvy a little sooner than some, hence I had a head start. I definitely would not want the kind of ubiquity that artists such as Shepard Fairey and David Choe have cultivated, it’s difficult enough to cope with the amount of admin I have to process at this level.
The validation has magnified my insecurities and made creative decisions much harder and protracted, I do enjoy positive feedback in short bursts though.
Whose imagery do you surround yourself with? What artworks adorn your own walls?
Mainly junk shop ephemera, postcards etc. I don’t have a great deal of art up at home besides a Tretchikoff ‘Blue Lady’bought when I was at art school. Also a painting byEric Haachtand Jam Giant. Both are objects that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
How would you describe that meditative, free and fluid state of mind that overcomes you whilst you lose yourself creating a piece of instinctive, gestural artwork?
Some artists respond positively to institutional learning environments, others feel restricted, judged and suffocated. You are a product of art schools and describe those times as some of the happiest of your life. What did you personally gain from attending art school? What fundamentals do you think art schools should try and instill in their students in regards to their students’ creativity and artistic vision?
Art school cemented my decision to pursue a visual career path. At a foundation level, it was still quite regimented and certainly led me to analyse making pictures on an intellectual level rather than for the sake of it. It’s hard to say what art schools should, or should not dictate because each student is an individual with specific needs and intentions.
A boot camp approach to drawing would be a good start, but that could possibly be nurtured from a much younger age; sadly that opens up a whole newdebate on a deeper sociological level, for example, should there be any ‘school’ at all, if it simply prepares the individual for life within a predefined system?
You reference naturally occurring geometry as well as recognisable forms in random objects as inspiration. You could argue Mother Nature is the ultimate artist and any art humans produce is always a vain attempt at replicating her flawless grace. What do you love so much nature’s natural patterns, textures and forms?
Human replication of natural forms is a fairly futile exercise in a broader sense, however, it’s human nature to try and make sense of something infinite. Natural forms are the ultimate inspiration for me.
You’re essentially a portraiture artist, forever exploring subdued faces, twisted forms and abstracted anatomy of the human figure. What continues to fascinate and stimulate you about this subject matter?
It’s safety in the familiar, I could keep drawing faces until the end of time and still never capture the full range of expressions or moods that one face can produce.
What is the significance of the animals you have repeatedly used throughout your career, and their relation to the people you often integrate them with within the compositions?
The animals basically break up the monotony, they’re also bastardisations of mythological creatures. I live out in the sticks, so often see more animals than humans week to week.
You list (amongst others) "anyone that has mastered their art form in the last five hundred years", Ralph Steadman, Robert Rauschenberg, Picasso, Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock as being some of the people who have influenced your expressive outputs. Can you isolate any specific elements of their practices that studying these artists illuminated and liberated you with? Was it their stylistic and practical approaches that fascinated you, or did you relate and gravitate towards their creative philosophies and ethics? Or a combination of the two?
They have all broken ground in their own ways, Steadman continues to do so. They all practiced in such a way that was often remote from reality, almost superhuman. All with singular visions that none of us mortals will ever properly understand, treading a narrow path between the sane and the insane, often enhanced or destroyed by chemicals.
You gave up drinking four years ago after “attaining a Doctorate from Harvard in that particular subject”. When did you realise something had to change and how did immersing yourself in your artworks help you steer towards a healthier lifestyle and a more positive state of mind?
It was a fairly simple decision, for a while drinking was all I did, work became impossible. It was really a last ditch attempt to redeem what had become a fairly meaningless existence. I regret nothing though, the one situation wouldn’t have come about without the other.
Past artists, musicians and writers who died in obscurity without a penny to their name are now internationally studied and revered. Do think people make a plausible effort to understand and interpret their art, or has the Facebook and the internet generation diluted people’s attention spans past the point of no return?
We live in a time where for the most part artists are synthesisers; there are thousands of years of human expression to plunder so it’s a fairly understandable reaction. Contemporary culture goes from massive to zero in a few days, the internet has democratised every conceivable circumstance to such a degree, novel ideas near impossible to find.
Artists are, in some cases given similar treatment to rock stars, they are celebrated more than ever before as personalities. The work in some cases may be second fiddle to the individual. The rapid fire nature of FB or Twitter, gives people unlimited choices twenty four hours a day, exposure can be just as detrimental as it is positive.
You mention in another interview that if you could go back in time and talk to Van Gogh, you’d tell him ‘nothing he ever did was wrong’. How does it make you feel when you look at his work? How would you describe what he achieved visually with his paintings?
Van Gogh never seemed to fit in any of the worlds he encountered, in today’s terms he was a manic depressive, you can see both his mania and his depression in his paintings, I would guess that for short spells they provided the sanctuary and stillness he would have been craving.
I see him as a kindred spirit, I relate entirely to the turmoil that must have ruled his life.
You talk about utilising ‘very quick and spontaneous’ approaches when working in both paint and digital. What do you like about these more improvised, accidental and experimental techniques and how have you explored and evolved your own approaches with this style?
The more serendipitous marks and forms work best when set off by something considered, there isn’t really a formula to arriving at accidental successes, I often use subtractive methods in tandem. This is one technique that would be incredibly time consuming in real media alone, it’s definitely the most fun and rewarding part of the process.
Sometimes a useful form will appear in ten minutes, sometimes four hours.
The subjects depicted in your work are strangers with which you have no emotional connection. You depict these women in “positions of strength”. Visual metaphors for “a maternal force in the world that will one day win out”. From where did your theories about the place of woman in society stem from?
From living in a patriarchal society that spins the illusion of equality, whilst maintaining male dominance at the core. The subject is too vast to tackle in a few lines, or even a few pictures. In the context of my work, I attempt to make images devoid of sexuality in an attempt to display a neutral agenda. I try not to patronise wherever possible.
It’s my personal / insignificant way of redressing the balance with a common sense world view, rather than that reinforced by modern religions and political institutions. Little of the world’s problems will be solved unless this most basic inequality is tackled and over turned.
The late George Carlin said."If there is a God he has to be a man, no woman would fuck things up this much".
You’re marooned on the end of a plank, hanging off the side of a ship, over a red sea of paint. The famous Pirartist of the Acrylic Seas, Captain Canvas, advances towards you, gesticulating the sharpened end of one of his fabled diamond tipped paint brushes. As his disheveled crew of good for nothings haggle and abuse you with insults acquired from years spent sailing the seven seas, you involuntarily start to back down the plank and your life starts to flash before your eyes.
As you look down at the unwelcoming sea, what kind of creative life of the artist do you hope to be looking back on? What do you still want to achieve as a person and as an artist? How would you like to be remembered? And what, when asked by Captain Canvas if you have any last requests, would you ask for?
Some vague feeling of fulfilment would suit me fine. I don’t have a specific‘to do list’as long as I can still find joy in what I do I’ll be happy. I’d like to be remembered as someone who conducted themselves with a good degree of decency under difficult circumstances. My last request would be for a very large vodka.