New York

John Millei

Ace Gallery

Should the facile painter be envied or pitied? Perhaps the better question is, Who is to be pitied more, the facile painter who remains imprisoned by his proficiency, luxuriating in its pleasurable trivialities—or the one who feels the constraints his talents impose on his expression, flailing against the bars of style? To his credit, if not his comfort, John Millei clearly belongs among the latter class of artists. There’s something cruel, therefore, in gathering together so much of his production over the last eight years, as this show did. Where a smaller exhibition of a single series might have highlighted Millei’s possibilities, this survey underlines his problems—foremost among them being that, while possessing more ability than almost any three painters combined, he has no subject or (what is nearly the same thing) style of his own.

The subject of art is never anything other than an obsession, and while Millei may have one, he hasn’t caught sight of what it is. “Obsessions have very deep roots,” the novelist Ernesto Sabato once observed, “and the deeper one goes the fewer one finds.” Millei’s multiple obsessions seem evidence not of Picassoid voracity or Richter-esque criticality but of the artist’s uncertainty about his underlying preoccupations, as well as a restlessness fueled by an acute awareness of his predicament. The names of other painters, both precursors and contemporaries, keep asserting themselves in the works on display here: in front of Millei’s 1991 “Quicksilver” series, where the broad silver-on-silver gestures melt into mirrorlike blankness, that of Gerhard Richter, but without Richter’s steely froideur; Julian Schnabel in some work of 1994, such as The History of Ships and When Your Fate Is Not Known, though their hectic bravado lacks the nonchalance that aerates Schnabel’s bombast. Elsewhere, Moira Dryer, Philip Taaffe, and others come to mind. Perhaps the most challenging of Millei’s derivations come in the recent paintings, all titled Imperfection of Memory, 1996, which adapt the late style of Philip Guston to abstract painting (precisely what Guston had rejected). Here, the fragmentation of the field into disjointed areas, and the coagulation of abrupt gestures into awkward forms, coaxes Millei into surprising compositional and coloristic resolutions, and the hints of representation tug at the imagination.

Most artists latch on to a style that’s in the air and just ride it as far as they can. Others, more eclectic, synthesize aspects of disparate projects into a plausible blend. Millei does neither; rather than combine bits he works through entire systems. The sense of search gives the work its claims to seriousness. If Millei ever finds out what he’s looking for—and I won’t be surprised if that happens eventually—the results could be as substantial as they are already impressive.

Barry Schwabsky