Vancouver-based artist Sean Mills’ painting practice explores the materiality of his medium to test the boundaries of its object making potential. Moving beyond the traditional application of pigment onto canvas, he has accumulated, dipped, dried and stretched paint, creating works including those made entirely acrylic and objects suspended in translucent medium. During his three month residency at Burrard Arts Foundation, Mills has methodically applied layers of clear acrylic paint onto varying scales of glass. The meticulous buildup of transparent medium admits the passage of light and shadow while both allowing and distorting vision. In a sense, the paintings act as lenses that concentrate and disperse light in their surroundings.
Leaning against walls, windows, and one another, Mills’ paintings and objects are positioned away from the gallery architecture. Acting as both form-containers and form-generators, their compositions adapt to the conditions and events of their environments. As bodies, objects, and light move through the exhibition space, they are contained, transmitted and reflected within the works. Conversely, when light shines through the works, it paints textures on the wall, floors and ceilings. Refraction is the bending of light as it passes from one substance to another. In Mills’ works, the light rays pass from air to glass and back to air. Shadows spill out over their surroundings. The effect on the walls and floor is at times like ice, skin and rutted rock.
While time-based categorization is customarily reserved for artistic disciplines such as poetry, performance and dance, Mills’ work is undeniably linked to the temporal. The passage of time is evident in the laborious, sequential buildup of material and the tremendous patience required by the process; each layer of medium must be carefully applied then left to dry before moving on. The paintings are records of evolution and suffused with the history of a committed practice.
Frequently paralleling the dialogue of institutional critique, Mills’ practice also addresses ideas of transparency in both a literal and figurative sense. Institutional critique, the systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions such as galleries and museums is in accordance with JeanFrancois Lyotard’s theory of self-reflexivity and the avant-garde’s tendency to concern itself with interrogating the concept of art itself. Three of Mills’ earlier works featured in the exhibition are coloured paintcubes pumped full of air from local commercial art galleries, suggesting a skeptical comment on an art market that is often insular, self-contained and exclusive. The characteristically inaccessible “white cube” is translated into an art object that one can look through, be near to but not easily enter.
Glass is an amorphous solid, meaning that like liquid, there is no long-term order in the atomic structure the scientific condition responsible for its transparent properties. The type and scale of glass that Mills has used is often used in building applications, a particularly relevant material in Vancouver where glass highrises and condos seem to be perpetually under construction. Mills’ use of glass as a material juxtaposes its industrial and practical use value with the aesthetic function of the art object. The near-ubiquitous use of transparent glass in contemporary urban architecture suggests the open flow of information in and out of structures. Similarly, transparency as a social and civic expectation connotes truth and freedom from pretense or deceit. The monochromatic works in the exhibition Transparent Architecture as Support possess the double function of being seen and seen through. Their backs and centers visible, they can hide nothing. Mills has effectively made objects that are both adaptive and receptive while creating a self-conscious experience of viewing experience where one’s own movement and position is paramount.