Gabriel Mills: Sonata Half Light
August 26, 2021–September 25, 2021

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Three is a magic number. Numerologists say it relates to time – past, present, future; birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end.

Sonata Half Light

There is music. There is measure. There is illumination.

You could say these phrases out loud. Mills told me he came up with that title to create a triptych with words. He is, however, emphatically an oil painter. He is enamored of the medium and its possibilities for image and expression. He paints constantly as a way to work through, and pose questions related to experience and expectations, often resulting in an in-between space. He makes individual panels, compositions that often include curious heads that are hybrid fusions of people, past and present.

Things happen with juxtaposition, there is resonance. Those single panels are eerie, monumental, monstrous, yet expressive of the way history, light, shadow, and experience, compound. Mills speaks of daily habits that include giving thanks to all who came before him. This sentiment has as much to do with family, god, and artistic forebears. He is an artist who mentions Michelangelo, Kerry James Marshall, and Cecily Brown in a time spanning group of inspirational artists. Mills works in a medium that is both ancient and modern, and he treats it with reverence. He lives through it, describing it as a relationship, a marriage that grows richer through commitment and struggle.

The complexity and nuance compounds as he links paintings together so they can communicate through space and image. In the oil on panel triptych Bathed in Shadow, 2021, Mills abuts abstraction and atmospheric realism, a grouping that is a gesture towards making sense of senseless destruction. He was inspired by the temporal adjacency of the conflagration at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the burning of Black churches in America. The former saved by an outpouring of grief and donations, the latter, a hate crime, receiving such a different (and more modest) response.

He harnesses a visual power with brushstroke, tonal qualities, and juxtaposition. The central view is of sky and clouds, a place of mutable interpretation—“could be a space of deceit, or a place filled with love and protection.” It’s all there.

He goes interior in Aster Mist, 2021, a trio of paintings with more identifiable spaces, architectural, physical, metaphysical. The left panel is a view into a room, and to the hallway beyond. There are spaces within spaces, paintings within the painting of Mills’ mutable domestic space. As he describes it, “My bedroom at 07:00 was my own Planet Fitness, at 08:30 it was church, at 10:00 it was the studio, at 15:00 it was the library. The interior is just about how we decide to activate it.” The center painting is of two figures in a bathtub, seen from above, an impossible view of bodies in rest and purification, whereas in the right panel, we see a more chromatically heated composition, a vibrant mask-like form, a strip in the center revealing a hyper realistic face behind it. There is a sentence forming from these three panels, the meaning and location, however, shifts with our perspectives.

Sonata Half Light includes four triptychs—in numerology, four represents stability and balance. Each triptych speaks to each other with iterations of the body, architectural space, and atmosphere. Mills positions each with vulnerability, confidence, and human glow.

— Glen Helfand