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Russell Mills: Paintings In Sound

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[It's] like considering every work as an archaeological dig...fragments are found at different levels...and a correspondence between these disparate parts unfolds, a story begins to suggest itself.
One wonders what such diverse people as Brian Eno, Miles Davis, David Sylvian, Bill Laswell, Nine Inch Nails, Hector Zazou, Michael Brook, Roger Eno, Harold Budd, Youssou N'Dour, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Wire, Penetration, Toru Takemitsu, Djivan Gasparyan, Gavin Bryars, Adiemus, David Toop and Jan Garbarek would all have in common. The answer to that is Russell Mills. Mills is a painter, designer, illustrator, video artist, stage set designer, teacher and a musician. Indeed, Mills wears many hats. As a true renaissance artist he has proven himself to be very prolific and his work has always shown him to be open to moving into new territories and collaborating with artists working in different disciplines to his own.

His paintings are a proof of what people who just download music miss out on, as his paintings are works of art that can be enjoyed on many levels. He has worked extensively in design, producing influential book covers for Samuel Beckett, Ian McEwan and Milan Kundera amongst others, and has exhibited his paintings, assemblages and collages in numerous solo and group exhibitions in locations including London, New York and Tokyo. He has also created multi-media installations with his collaborator Ian Walton in Japan, UK, Ireland, Spain and USA. Another fascinating facet of his oeuvre are his two albums Strange Familiar and Pearl & Umbra, to which many of the aforementioned artists have provided their contributions, helping him create music that transcends genre limits.

All About Jazz: Mr. Mills, you are a painter, musician, illustrator, video artist, stage set designer and teacher. What sparked your desire to work in all these different areas?

Russell Mills: There was no specific spark or overwhelmingly convincing desire to work in these areas. As a student I wasn't very clear about a specific career path, however I was always very positive about those things I didn't want to do. The main idea that fuelled my ideas was to avoid specialization and to avoid being pigeonholed. I've always been intensely curious about a myriad of ideas and experiences, artistic, cultural, historical, biological and scientific and have studiously avoided being trapped in one idiom or genre.

I came to work in all these supposedly diverse areas of creative expression partly by chance, in other words I was asked to work in one form or another and I accepted if the work was challenging, exciting and if I respected the people asking me to do it. These experiences usually led to other works in other diverse areas. Also all of these opportunities had to be ethically sound and if possible morally enabling. I guess that in retrospect I was very lucky and honored to meet up with and to work with and for the unique people I have done.



AAJ: How has each experience informed your understanding of the other? What experience from the visual arts did you take into the process of making music (and vice versa)?

RM: Essentially to all these diverse activities I think I bring the same commitment. Every involvement with these separate but interlocking activities informs and inspires my work in all other areas. Obviously the approaches to research and evolution of ideas are slightly altered by the tools required for each different discipline. As for working in the visual arts and music, well I've always felt that there was a close correspondence between the two disciplines and in their potential to move and inspire higher emotional states.

I've also always believed in the notion put forward by writer Walter Pater that "all arts aspire to the condition of music. I understand this to mean that music is the highest form of cultural expression and all the other arts try to reach similar zeniths of potential. To experience music, to be moved by it, one doesn't have to analyze it, it comes straight into one's system, avoiding the brain and goes directly either to the heart or the groin. This is ideally what I'd like visual arts to do.

AAJ: Can you point to the place where music and art intersect for you?

RM: Essentially I guess that it is when a work, whether it be visual or audio, really pulls one up, knocks one sideways. Expectations are floored and preconceptions are demolished when this happens. Specifically for me it is in devising, making and realizing multimedia site-specific installations. Installations allow a whole raft of interests to collide and in researching themes and ideas for them many tangential thoughts are encountered which lead me in interesting unexpected directions to rich sources of potential. Installations also allow one to explore the three dimensional—architecturally, sonically, visually and emotionally, and by doing so enable one to create an immersive environment—as with the best music, one is sucked inside the work entirely.

AAJ: I came across an article on the internet about Kurt Schwitters that you wrote. How has his work influenced you?


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