When Covid hit, Santa Fe artist Gigi Mills did what many of us did: she slowed down. A painter and sculptor who has long maintained a disciplined studio practice, Mills found herself moving with greater deliberation into her days, carving out additional time simply to sit and observe. “I would get up and sit at my table and just watch the birds,” she says. Some days it took longer and longer to get to her studio and, even after she got there, she would find herself doing the same thing: sitting quietly by a window, watching birds flit from branch to branch.
The range of contemplative paintings, works on paper, and small clays that have resulted from these Covid months are now on display at GF Contemporary in Santa Fe, one of several U.S. galleries exhibiting Mills’ work that regularly sells out of it as soon as it enters the building.
WHO: Paintings and sculptures by Gigi Mills
WHAT: “The Small Space”
WHERE: GF Contemporary, 707 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, NM
WHEN: October 9-25, 2020
A self-taught artist whose painting style is composed of stylized figures, a spare, sometimes dramatic use of color, considerable negative space, and close attention to the line, Mills is uncomfortable discussing her work. When asked, as she often is, why people are drawn to her paintings, her typical, Louise Gluck-like response is, “What people think of my work is none of my business.”
And yet people are drawn to it. Indeed, some can’t seem to get enough of it. Several collectors own 30-40 of her pieces; many others own between 10 and 20.
There is a dark, almost Nordic quality to the light that resides within many of the works, as if night is always about to fall. The subdued tonality is often punctured by a contained but bold swath of yellow, red, orange, or cobalt blue, commanding the viewer’s attention like a wake-up call.
The human subjects of Mills’ paintings are typically standing, seated, or lounging, looking down, aside, upward, or outward, sometimes toward a large expanse of water or sky and always appearing as though in deep, private thought. In some paintings the figures are perched on the edge of an object: a pool, for example, or a rock. The center of the paintings are almost never occupied by a human figure but, more likely, a horse or hound, or, in some of works, several hounds. When humans are alone in Mills’ paintings, they typically occupy a space not quite in the center of the frame but off to one side. For Mills, it is the natural world of animals, sky, ocean, and stars that holds the greatest mystery and fascination.
Yet the unknown of what it is, exactly, that resides within the human psyche figures prominently and with great subtlety in Mills’ work as well, most of which range in size from 7” x 11” to 28” x 40” with the vast majority falling somewhere in between. Her largest pieces — mixed media works on paper — are, at their most monumental, 97” x 47”, though most are not nearly this large. Prices range from $1,850 for the most diminutive paintings to $18,000 for the largest, with most falling in the $3,000-$8,000 range (probably priced too low, given their demand).
And yet this former dancer and choreographer, who began her art career about 20 years ago by selling paintings for $200 to $300 a pop at a Santa Fe flea market, is delighted by the fact that she can now support herself making the art that resides most deeply in her subconscious, offering something of her most private self to those who are drawn to the unmistakable energy of the canvases. This energy is most evident, like the work of many great painters, when one is alone in a room surrounded by them rather than when one is elbowing in to get close enough to see their detail at an exhibit opening, even during Covid times, when many fewer people are congregating at such events. Perhaps this explains why some collectors want more and more of the work: to build on that energy. To make that force field ever stronger. To live with it and the relationship their subconscious minds build with it in the stillness of their own homes.
Collectors sense the energy
Elizabeth Edwards of Houston and New Orleans is one such collector. Tracy Gielbert, the owner of Gallery Orange in the French Quarter, had introduced Edwards to Mills’ work soon after the two met, but Edwards wasn’t convinced initially that the quiet, small-scale pieces were for her. One day she happened into the gallery and encountered one of Mills’ larger paintings that she hadn’t seen before and was immediately drawn in by it. Since then, Edwards has purchased 25 to 30 more of Mills’ paintings and sculptures, many of which reside in a single room in her French Quarter home that she has given over completely to Mills’ work.
“The thing about this work is that it is addictive,” Gielbert says. “Whenever I sell one to a new buyer I issue a disclaimer letting them know that nobody ever purchases just one. Once people feel the magnetism of this work, they simply want more.”
The mood of Mills’ work varies, as does the subject matter. What remains consistent is the spaciousness of the compositions, which, for many, is what allows them personal access into the canvases.
True Ryndes, a San Diego painter, recalls the first time he saw a Mills piece in a Santa Fe gallery. “I was never so physically moved by a painting as I was by that one,” he recalls. “The image,” he continues, “was of a woman in a swimming cap seated on a bench with her feet in the sea, but nothing about it was customary. The sky was black, the water chartreuse, her face featureless. It seemed very personal, so was both comfortable and uncomfortable. Should we be intruding?”
Years later Ryndes and his husband were back in Santa Fe and found themselves in a different gallery. “On one wall was an image of a shimmering white horse standing in a brown lake. It felt serene and powerful, talismanic.” He looked at the artist’s information and recalled it from his earlier Santa Fe visit: “Gigi Mills. Damn right.” That painting became the first of Ryndes’ eventual nine purchases.
When asked why so many, he offers: “She doesn’t paint one topic or in only one way. She is happy creating monoprints that have the formality of old photographs as well as cut-and-painted paper pieces that toss us out to sea under the stars. Despite their varied subject material, they seem delectable and forever new. She creates a land I like to inhabit.”
Mills’ current show, “A Small Space,” is up at GF Contemporary in Santa Fe through October 25, 2020. Close to 40 percent of the show’s 22 paintings and works on paper were sold before the show opened. An additional 25 percent of the works have sold in the week since.