John Millei’s deliberate confidence gives his work gravitational pull

Millei’s “Drunk History”
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Millei's "Jack Daniels and Jeopardy"

Four and a half star

If 6 Turned out to be 9 Through June 30; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thursday until 8 p.m.); Saturday, noon-5 p.m. UNLV’s Barrick Museum, 702-895-3381.

You can’t stroll around John Millei’s If 6 Turned Out to Be 9: Selected Work, at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum. Nope—you have to stand there. In front of each painting. Look some more at those forms and shapes. Step back. Squint a bit. Move on to the next painting; come back to the last one. It’s as if each work manifests a specific gravitational pull, an elusive pictorial depth, a tactile network of specific intentions that tows the viewer’s focus back inside the abstract composition and anchors it there. You don’t see this exhibition; you experience it.

Millei's "Maritime -(Doldrums2)"

Consider “Jack Daniels and Jeopardy,” a heady 2011 canvas asserting Millei’s trademark, stylistic moves. The “JD” canvas has three types of paint—oil, Flashe vinyl acrylic and aluminum enamel. Millei’s repertoire of paint applications come next: pasty-thick layers and watery-thin coats, high-gloss colors and deep matte. His signature silver aluminum reflects light away; his dense black absorbs it. The thick/thin/reflective/absorptive strategy generates a canvas with visual force. The composition, too, pulls the viewer in. The linear forms don’t lead the eye out of the frame; instead, they stop short of the edge and rebound, holding attention inside the painting where layers and depths continuously unfold.

With their lively palettes and compositional verve, Millei’s “JD” and other works seem to recall Abstract Expressionism and/or Action Painting. Wrong. There’s not much paint-what-you-feel, spontaneous gestural combustion here. This work is about control. By the time Millei puts brush to canvas, he’s done literally hundreds of watercolor studies. Each painting deploys a known, even intimate, language. The painter’s familiarity with his forms and palette gives every brush stroke deliberate confidence.

Millei's "Hat Head 7"

The exhibition presents outtakes from several bodies of work over the past decade—all of which appear non-representational. Two works from the recent Hat Head series, for example, display bold explorations of geometry and blocks of color. But on closer inspection, the faintest resemblance to a portrait emerges: a head, with long hair, in a wide-brimmed hat. Here as elsewhere, Millei “abstracts” from nature, revealing the underlying architecture of things, because structural relationships are the engine of his compositions. In the masterful Maritime series, ship rigging is abstracted into grids and curves; in the humorous works from the Procession group, figures are dressed as adorable cones.

If 6 Turned Out to Be 9 takes its title from a Jimi Hendrix song celebrating you-do-what-you-got-to-do individualism. And Millei does just that. Despite his insistence on control—of materials, of applications, of the composition—his work exhibits the palpable freedom of a painter in full possession of his power.

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