New York

Wes Mills

Berman/Daferner Gallery

Though filament and filiation may not be etymological cousins, in Wes Mills’ work they’re almost twins. Each line in his drawings is a hairlike fracture made faintly incandescent by the passage of a psychic current generated by the line that traces patriarchy’s traumatic contour. Small without being miniature, the drawings nevertheless convey the impression of an extreme reduction—the minimum area in which recollection and reflection can occur—the content kept, by the scale, at a distance that is the opposite of intimacy.

So while the awkward, childlike gesturality recalls Cy Twombly, the tonalities and shapes Susan Rothenberg, the style of abstraction Agnes Martin, ultimately no one of these artists particularly haunts Mills’ work because its origin is clearly peculiar to him. In the sibling (all works 1994) mindless discipline and trauma-induced catatonia issue from the same dark, phallic figure that dominates the composition—in the oddly diminutive way in which any given figure can be said to “dominate” in this artist’s work. Here what at first looks like a network of lines radiating from the main, off-center accretion of cross-hatching turns out to be microscriptural repetitions of the word “green.” If this brings to mind that brand of discipline specific to the school room where an injunction (“I will not talk during class”) or a misspelled word must be written a hundred times on the blackboard, it is because Mills’ relationship with his father left him so disoriented that his behavior earned him precisely this sort of insult-to-injury institutional punishment.

Whatever “mastering” of trauma there is here occurs at a distance commensurate with the violence still emanating from the events on which the work ruminates. In our home, a faintly outlined, iconic house floats above a swath of drooping lines. In us two sitting, gray and white lines tracing a rough semicircle over a dark wash suggest the wispy, perhaps unwelcome presence of memory. Tentative and maladroit, each drawing participates in a potentially perilous but also compulsive reopening of a persistently present past.

The question of the “quality” of Mills’ work is interestingly subordinated or suspended by the sense that it is somehow necessary. For Mills, drawing is a kind of remote microsurgery in which a child sutures his wounds, stitching closed their lips in patterns that retrace, and so speak, the shape and character of their origin in the family.

Thad Ziolkowski