Mike Mills’s new book, Graphics Films, nicely captures the contradictory natures of the personal and the profitable. The monograph, the first from the 43-year-old California native, tracks Mills’s ascent from a teenage skateboarder to a twentysomething habitué of Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery to an internationally renowned graphic designer, adman, artist, and feature-film director. In a dizzying variety of mediums—films, skateboards, album covers and music videos for Sonic Youth and Air, advertisements for Levi’s and Volkswagen, handbags, books, and ribbons—he deploys his gifts for the reductive graphic and the childlike touch, using seemingly clichéd imagery and catchphrases to make something intimate and affecting.
In the mid-1990s, his work for X-girl, Supreme, and Sonic Youth helped create a visual language for the skate-and-surf subculture, borrowing heavily from 1970s clip art. Designs such as a brassy stack of hi-fi speakers for the Beastie Boys were a welcome change from the layered, grungy graphics then in vogue, but the overall aesthetic hasn’t worn well. Because of its directness, Mills’s colorful pop-art style was easily co-opted and watered down into ironic T-shirts; if you’ve flipped through an Urban Outfitters catalog in the last decade or so, you’ve seen the legacy of that part of Mills’s career.
But you can’t exactly fault a designer for his spawn, and even in the 1990s, Mills was beginning to distance himself from the heavily retro style in favor of one that was more personal and shambling, producing small-scale miracles like the album cover for his own band, Butter: a close-up of a melting pat of butter with the band’s name carved into the surface.
Most of the work in Graphics Films is in that vein, expressing an idea in a form so basic that it’s barely there. Though his drawings can seem simplistic or even crude, Mills is a master of clarity and organization as well as a keen scholar of art history. He’s also a canny marketer, and his willingness to put himself in the picture has made him highly sought after in commercial design. Appropriately enough, Graphics Films (edited by Aaron Rose and copublished by his imprint) is bookended by two shaggy self-portraits that alternate between self-effacement and solipsism. The first is a poster of 176 photographs of people named Mike Mills, culled from a Google Image search. The second is a collection of 24 ink drawings of events that shaped Mills’s life. In one, cigarette butts drop from the fingers of his teenage parents; in another, three ships of English colonists sail to the New World. It could be a version of every child’s vain suspicion—that all of human history was simply a prelude to his birth—or, with its deliberately ridiculous juxtapositions, the short-circuiting of that impulse.
“Even if I’m doing an ad, I’m trying to make it personal,” Mills told Tokion in 2005 on the release of his feature film Thumbsucker. But by that time, he had mostly abandoned working for clients and left the Directors Bureau, the production company he had cofounded in 1996 with Roman Coppola. Instead, he focused on films (he has released a feature-length documentary about the use of antidepressants in Japan, and a follow-up to Thumbsucker is in the works) and on his graphics line (called Humans), a Japanese-made collection of posters, fabric, and other ephemera. Here, Mills is at his most assured, creating scenes—such as a poster that turns cracked plates into recognizable patterns, or another in which an amorphous blue smudge replicates his breath on a window—that are quiet and heartbreaking. He has described his work’s simplicity as “making some kid part of me feel OK”—a way of imposing order on a messy world.
For every collection of Humans, Mills has produced a poster manifesto. (The cover of Graphics Films, a basket of flowers rendered in gorgeous spot-varnish pointillism, was originally the third one.) It’s a form that might seem at odds with such an inward-looking artist, but it suits him well. With deflating phrases (“Everything I Said Could Be Totally Wrong”) and borrowed material (a lengthy quotation from a Wikipedia page on animal rights), Mills undoes the inherent arrogance of the form. And in the last few years, Mills has created a series of images, for Humans and for the band the Sads (fronted by Rose), that might serve as its own manifesto for his work. Each has some variation on the words “I was feeling sad / I went shopping / I bought this poster / I hung it on my wall / I still feel sad.” Stuck on a product, it self-consciously brings to the surface the contradictions that Mills plays with: It looks like a private thought, but it also looks like a marketing ploy. And it is, of course, for sale. But more tellingly, it shows Mills’s unerring knack for turning mere disclosure into revelation.