Truth in Pop Art: An Interview with Donny Miller
“Remember, you can have anything. You just have to think it. Just kidding, life isn’t that simple.”
Donny Miller is one of the more interesting visual artists working today; he’s active not only in graphics and painting, but also video art, performance art, and site-specific installations. He is best known for his book Beautiful People with Beautiful Feelings (2006), which juxtaposes near-advertising images of glamorous men and women culled from clip out art with sardonic commentaries on the human condition. But there’s much more to Miller than that, as a brief tour of his work on the web illustrates. Intrigued by Miller’s take on contemporary society, and also by his turn towards more optimistic work in his recent Universe series, and other new works, I interviewed him by telephone at his home in Los Angeles on February 24, 2013; what follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Wheeler Winston Dixon: Well, the first thing I want to ask you about is your rabbit; your website says that you have a pet rabbit. Is it still alive, or has it gone to rabbit heaven?
Donny Miller: No, it was a she, named Funzone, and she’s gone to rabbit heaven, yes. I found her on the streets, pretty abused and messed up, and took her home. For a while, everything was cool, but then she started pissing in the corners of my studio, marking her territory, and biting me, so I had to give her away.
WWD: You were born in 1973; tell me about your mother and father.
DM: Well, my mom was somebody I was very close with, and I’m very close with now. And my dad, I just wasn’t really that close with.
WWD: What does your mother do?
DM: She’s a housewife.
WWD: And your father?
DM: He was a photographer for McDonnell Douglas, the aircraft company.
WWD: When did you first have the idea of being an artist? When you are growing up, what turned you on – pop music, television – what in particular?
WWD: That’s a very So-Cal kind of thing.
DM: Yeah, it is. I did a lot of skateboarding to get out of the house; our house was a crazy, nutty house, kind of a clean “hoarder” house. Not dead animals and stuff. But it was just packed with all kinds of stuff, and I wanted to get outside.
WWD: And what kind of music are you listening to?
DM: Well, around age 12 or so I was starting to get into punk rock and that stuff a lot. I liked the Clash a lot when I was a little kid.
WWD: So would it be safe to say that you were sort of already rejecting society, rejecting school, rejecting the norm, so to speak?
DM: Yes, I guess so. Not consciously, but I didn’t really fit in with mainstream society a whole lot. I was something of an outsider. I was also into Led Zeppelin growing up as a little kid; Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, lots of Devo, and The Beatles.
WWD: When did you sort of drift towards these highly commercialized images that you’re using in the Beautiful People book?
DM: Well, I kind of started doing that stuff in the late 90’s. And the thing is, I can draw those images, but that’s not the point. I wanted to take commercial clip art, images that already existed, and completely change the meaning of it; to totally subvert it, sort of like romance comics that have somehow gone terribly wrong. So it was taking something cheap, commercial clip art, where you can buy a thousand illustrations for $5 or something like that, and then appropriating them, but applying a deeper meaning to it. And also signing my name to each piece, to claim it as an image I had created, signing it with my name very aggressively.
WWD: That’s the same thing that Warhol did; he had a rubber stamp that he would use to stamp his name on everything; many of his images were simply appropriated.
DM: Right. There are two things I wanted to do with that. I did that because I was kind of pushing it as a brand. There was a headline, there was the product, and then there was my name, which was the brand, so it’s an art piece, and an advertisement, in a way.
WWD: Did you go to the movies a lot when you were growing up?
DM: Yes, I did; I loved adventure movies, the Indiana Jones movies. I always loved Steven Spielberg in particular, much more so than George Lucas. At the time Spielberg was making those films in the early 80s, you could tell that he really understood kids. He would get them to give the most amazing performances because he was so in tune with their world.
WWD: Yes, at the 2011 Comic-Con Convention in San Diego, he said to the audience members, “You’ll be kids the rest of your lives! I feel the same way!” – so he’s very much on that wavelength.
DM: Wow, that’s amazing. But it’s really true.
WWD: OK, what kind of formal education did you have? Did you go to college, art school, or what kind of stuff did you do?
DM: I went to community college for a while, and I was in art school for a while too, and I was in art classes all through high school. But the community college experience, to be honest with you, simply seemed a waste of time; I thought they were all morons and I just couldn’t imagine them teaching me anything. At the time, I was working as the creative director for Vans Shoes; this was about 2000 or so.
That’s when I started to feel really comfortable with making art; I wanted to do this all the time. That’s when I quit my job, and began creating art full time. I started working on the Beautiful People project, which took four years or so to complete. I had been kind of amassing all this stuff, and just putting it together, and a friend who said “Hey, I know this editor and she loves your stuff, so why don’t you do a book?” And that’s one of the things that I do – if I want something to happen, I start to make the things happen. I started making a book. I focused on that. I started printing it out, I started putting it together, putting it out everywhere, in my mind, in other people’s minds. I was actualizing it, making the whole thing real. You do it, and keep on doing it, and then it happens. So that’s basically it. You have to just totally invest.
WWD: Would you say that your work during this period is social criticism in a sense, sort of Adbusters in a way?
DM: Right, right. It’s a subversive kind of realist thing. There’s also a bunch of black and white ones that I’ve done; one of them says “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” Really, some people choose to be ignorant, despite all the information at their fingertips.
WWD: The images of men and women in Beautiful People aren’t real; they’re advertising constructions. Do you think we all are and don’t know it?
DM: Interesting, very interesting. In a way, I think we are. I think it goes back to the idea of what becomes “normal.” We’re all a product of advertisements and news media, in a way. The news is very black and white. Every story is either trying to get you to like something and buy it, or to like a person and vote for them, or else to make you live in fear, and then buy something to feel better, or to reject an ideology out of hand, without really thinking about it. The news is completely superficial, and it encourages superficiality. Especially TV news in LA – it’s totally plastic. It’s getting instantaneous “news bulletins” from the front, so to speak, but it’s very biased and it’s all just stuck in the moment. There’s no context; it’s just what’s happening right at the moment. So you don’t really get any genuine understanding of anything.
WWD: Do you think that American society is completely consumerist and selfish?
DM: Yes, you could say that, but I’m hopeful that’s going to change. I really feel that there are a lot of people who are starting to take a step back, and starting to realize a bit more what they are doing. I think that people are becoming a lot more conscious of the decisions they are making. It almost feels maybe it’s a little bit like the change that was going to happen in the 1960s. Do you remember how everyone in America felt very hopeful in the 1960s, when we were going to put a man on the moon in 1969?
WWD: Yes, indeed; anything seemed possible.
DM: It affected everything; it took over society. Everything looked like a rocket: the juicer, the car, the television set; everything was space age. But when we got there, after that, it seemed to be like it was the end of the dream. And then everything turned from this hopeful thing to “let’s make it all country kitchens” and return to the past.
WWD: Warhol once said the 60’s were really busy and the 70’s were really empty. I think that’s really true. I think what you’re saying here is that there was this sense of hope and positive energy in the 60s, but it all collapsed around 1970, society crashed and burned, and then we got stuck with Nixon. And of course, the 60s ended with a wave of assassinations; Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X; it was the end of the dream.
DM: Yes, but I think that this time, we’ve learned from that. I think that there’s a sense of hope now that will really evolve into something very positive, which will last longer than the 60s did. At least I hope so.
WWD: What do you think about Facebook? Do you think that that it encourages narcissism, “everybody is a star,” or do you think people really use it to connect, and it’s a positive thing?
DM: I think different people use it for different things – it’s defined by the person who uses it. I think that the most narcissistic, narcissist-driven, app is Instagram. There are some people on there that just take pictures of their shoes, and then they get 30,000 followers staring at their shoes! Pretty empty stuff.
WWD: In one of your interviews, you described the entire process of creation as consciously designing work that would get you more work. Fair enough?
DM: Yes, I think so, in a sense. But there’s also some stuff that I made where I didn’t get work. I do what I want to do because it’s what appeals to me. I want to push the Donny Miller brand, but at the same time, even in the work that I do for commercials, it’s pretty uncompromising. I think something can be an advertisement, and still be art.
WWD: Tell me about your video work. When did you start making those?
DM: Around 2006, after I had done Beautiful People. I was already kind of getting bored with the clip art stuff. Making videos is more exciting. And when you do a video like the ones that I’m doing, there’s always the threat of somebody trying to arrest you – that’s really exciting, in a sense (laughs).
WWD: Let’s talk about a few specifically. How about the Vodka ad, where you tried to get Mel Gibson on the phone, and his rep said “Well, he doesn’t drink” and you responded “Oh really, because I heard differently?” [See video below]
DM: Yes. Well, it ran for a little bit, but then they took it down, and apparently the lawyers at the Vodka company got really spooked.
WWD: Now what about Famous Movie #2, where you blank out, or pixel out the actors from Gone With the Wind?
DM: Yes, and I did one with The Wizard of Oz. I just had this fascination with pixelating people, I had done just a couple of pieces, because I thought they looked pretty, you know?
WWD: But are you sort of saying that without the identification factor of the actors involved it becomes a whole different experience?
DM: Well it does, especially the Wizard of Oz one; you can write yourself over the movie much more than you could otherwise.
WWD: Now what about 99 Cents Only or What Middle Class? – a public art piece on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. You put up a 99 cent store sign on a vacant storefront in one of the most expensive areas of Beverly Hills. How long did that sign stay up?
DM: I did that piece on the day before the 2007 Oscars. So everybody, especially on Rodeo Drive, was all in Oscar mode. I put it up on a Saturday, and it didn’t come down until about Monday or Tuesday. So it was up there for about three days. I always do these performance pieces in broad daylight, hiding in plain sight, and people think I’m just a worker putting up a sign; I blend in.
WWD: And it was a storefront that was going to become something else, and you just appropriated it, right?
DM: Right, right. The point of the piece was simple: the middle class shouldn’t erode so much to the point that there is no middle class. Then you would have a 99-cent store, a thrift store, right next to a Louis Vuitton store, and that’s it. Think of the middle class as the “donut of insulation” for rich people. If you look at a map, you can see how true this is. You see Bel Air, for example, and then in the surrounding area, it’s all working middle class people, and then it’s upper class in Beverly Hills. It’s getting more and more stratified – there’s the rich, the poor, and the middle class is getting squeezed out. I also did this piece which was sort of a critique of ultra-patriotism; Americans for A More American America. It’s a simple graphic, but it really delivers a message. But you’d be amazed at how many people take it at face value. And I did Gas Signs Truth in Advertising as a video performance piece, where I put up signs in gas stations dealing with oil companies, and how they make such an enormous profit [see video below]. I also did a Free Wishes piece, which has tear-off coupons at the bottom of the poster offering a “free wish” from the U.S. Federal Government, because “it’s the best we can do.”
WWD: Moving on to more recent work, the Universe pieces are much more positive.
DM: Right; they’re much more hopeful. I always want to change what I’m doing. I always want to explore new ideas. A lot of artists get one thing going, one shtick, and they just keep working it, and that’s nothing wrong with that. But I always appreciate it when an artist will come out with something completely different, like Damien Hirst. He works in lots of different media, and he’s changing all the time. So the Universe pieces sort of move beyond society, to eternal truths, like “the lesson repeats as needed.” It’s really true; you need more than one lesson, and you get more than one lesson.
WWD: So now what are you up to now with The Sperm Whale in a Parking Lot piece?
DM: Well, I had this idea since about 2005; that’s actually how long it’s been. I wanted to put a life size fake sperm whale in a parking lot, one that looked realistic. There would be somebody hosing it down all the time, trying to keep it alive. The eyes would move, the flippers would move, water would come out of the spout, and it would bleed from the mouth. In fact, I just had a meeting on this with the magazine Juxtapoz, and a company called Grenco, and they’re working with me to make this happen.
WWD: Do you see it as something that has to do with the way we mistreat animals, or as something that deals with the juxtaposition of nature within commercial society?
DM: No, the thing that I wanted to focus on more was the whale to me is representative of cosmic consciousness and man’s potential, man’s imagination. The positive energy in the universe. It’s about self-realization in a way. I’ve been doing TM (transcendental meditation) a lot, and I think a lot of my newer pieces are a result of that. The goal is to move towards the light. A lot of my more recent work is turning into philosophy, and I’m just kind of going in that direction with it. I wanted to get away from the clip art, and move into something that had deeper meaning. I’m moving from a darker place, to a more enlightened place. That’s the whole idea behind the work I’m doing now. I started out with the Beautiful People idea, and then moved on to something larger; something that deals with more universal issues. That’s the direction I’m moving in; out from the center. Commercial society is just a small part of it. Where we are in relation to the universe is a much larger question.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, coming April, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press /Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; second revised edition 2013). Dixon’s textual blog of media commentary, Frame by Frame, and a series of brief videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also entitled Frame by Frame, are available online.