Embracing the Void: A Conversation with Anthony Mikkelson

Anthony Mikkelson is a painter, animator, and purveyor of “cartoon realism” living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University in Boston until 2005 and graduated in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a BFA in Fine Arts. His work is a blend of provocative references to his personal history, political culture, and Midwest vernacular laced with pervasive sexuality. Emotional rawness and humor contend for your attention by crossing hyper-masculinity with deep sentimentality. 

I met with Anthony in a run-down neighborhood just off the free way, as the sun began to wane with Miller Park visible in the distance. His home, where he lives with his canine sidekick Crash, functions as a trifecta of living space, studio, and personal museum. Slanted floors abounded and heat was scarce. Pre-interview I was led up and down the narrow halls to several upstairs rooms, which in some cases were empty and in others perhaps a lone sculpture was on display. 

Jenna Wilson: After walking around your house it’s evident that you use a lot of different source material for inspiration and memory can you talk a little bit about that?

Anthony Mikkelson: Well, we live by a car lot, which is my uncle’s used car lot, IP Motors, I did that sign for if you noticed, which I think is funny because it’s two different colors and it bothers him. And, you know, I think we need more color to be honest, but I don’t know - that’s a spot that I consider like a home base, because it’s always been there for as long as I’ve been in Milwaukee. It’s like the one place that hasn’t changed in the sense of where I consider a place I belong.

JW: Do you  look to things that remind you of comfort and home?

AM: The idea of home is a big thing, my family has been gone for awhile now – moved to Texas 6 years ago and I have been here and then I’ve been rambling in other spots, Texas included. 

There’s this idea that I felt reading about Frank Lloyd Wright, who has made homes here [in Wisconsin] using materials that come from the surrounding areas [as inspiration] to make art. Part of my thing was about identity as well now - what is my identity? Working at a car lot for a while – the grease becomes something, you know? For years I was using cars, I used motor oil from my first car to mix into paint and stuff like that. Eventually I started using car hoods as an emblematic canvas, because of the shape, the 80’s cars I was using  - Volvos primarily, whatever was in my uncles car lot basement to paint on to make these emblematic things - paintings, which were mainly my “coyotes”. One I did of a girl, my old girl, like the sexualized Madonna pose that Edvard Munch started, but it had flames going around it. Anyways, the car stuff was part of my surroundings, therefore I wanted to use that. Now I have gone away from that and I use lake water for my watercolors. I’m doing watercolors of the Lake [Michigan] lately because when I was in Texas in 2013 that’s all I thought about was the lake, that horizon line and it was fucking hot there and I needed something. I came back up and I’m doing these watercolors.

JW: With the watercolors do you miss the texturized medium or the sculptural aspects of the things you were doing before? Recently you’ve gone into more of a drawing mode.

AM: Yeah. Well the thing is, watercolors were always a thing of meditation for me. Immediacy - you can get this color down, you can get this image real quick and it can travel well. I can go to the lakefront or go anywhere and do something. Whereas, with painting it’s a little bit more difficult, especially if you are working with oil, it gets on your hands, gets on your car, gets everywhere. Which can be alright but you know when you are battling the wind and shit, with an easel…

JW: Beside the practical reasons for not using those materials anymore, do you feel you are trying to capture more of the immediacy of a moment?

AM: I just want to capture the color of the lake, it changes so much and yet it’s like this minimal thing, and for me the lake is this place of comfort. I was born right on Lake Michigan at St. Mary’s [Hospital] which is right by Bradford Beach where I paint I am drawn to that spot, mainly because I had so many memories - like my mom taking me and my brothers there so many times.

JW: That would be the current version of the used car lot, being the home sort of feeling.

AM: Yeah, in a way I’m trying to seek out this landscape. When I lived above the car lot I could look out to the north and see all the cars that looked like a flock of sheep or like a crop, a field, a fallow field or whatever, especially during winter - and things would change and I would do watercolors of that sometimes, or oil paintings too. None of them great.

JW: You were using sort of a static subject through the seasons and capturing different moods? 

AM: In a way. Embracing the void is what my doctor said today, it’s something I’m afraid of. The existential plane of the horizon line is something amazing to me, like you can build everything from that point where you started out. When I did my animation of Ignition, it starts out with the line, and then it starts out with the road - you are building everything from this moment forward. It ends with a guy driving down the road and eventually coming into this car crash – and that one dealt with my dad. I built all these canvases here, or frames, more of these canvases, 6 by 9 [inches], and I’m going to be doing these studies with the lake in this climate and trying to get color. This is what keeps me going is trying to get color, because it’s trying to get an exactness – like how do you paint a wave without taking a still photo of it? But just through observation, how do you capture that color which can change quickly? I’m mixing colors for 20 minutes and look up and the sun is fucking shifted and shit’s changed and what does that mean? In Texas I wanted a lake, a big body of water, and there’s this fucking Monet in the art museum in Fort Worth that I loved and I was like holy fuck, it was a shoreline, and I was like “I want to do that. I took down the dimensions and I’m going to make a masterpiece. Because to me, coming back to “embrace the void” - I always was doing paintings for a long time and was like, well if I don’t fucking paint this, if I don’t do this glorious piece, then I can off myself.

[Both Laughing]

AM: Or no, I have to do this glorious piece, and then I can fucking do it, you know, then I can jump off the Hone Bridge.

JW: You had to put that pressure on yourself to get the work done? 

AM: Yeah, I mean I was unfortunately…there was a lot of depression involved in it, but I can get this image, you know, sometimes it’s like I’ve got to do that fucking image and sometimes it keeps me from finishing a piece because what was my initial impetus? It was like “alright, this is my masterpiece”. Now, I’m not so fucking cutthroat with myself – even though last night - I won’t blame a woman…I had fucking too much shit going on in my head and it bummed me out and I was up all night and then I thought, you know what? I’m going to paint that fucking Monet-sized painting of the lakefront now, but I’m going to do it here, and it’s going to get me through the winter. I don’t like winters…I love winter, because I feel like nobody’s working and then I’m working and I feel like I’m doing something, you know, not unique but…

JW: Important. 

AM: Yeah. Important for myself. You need something to come home to in winter. I mean it’s fucking dark here. The next time you come here there’s going to be the Monet-sized painting, maybe two. For me, it’s still about the meditation.  It’s about seeking objectivity because I feel like a lot of my work came from subjectivity – the narratives and animationsand stuff, dealing with my past, my father, and alcohol or whatever.

JW: There are a lot of background stories happening.

AM: A lot of stories, yeah it’s like - I’m tired of it, which is part of why I’m not online anymore because I’m sick of myself, you know, and sick of the narrative. 

JW: About trying to get offline. I know that you are taking a break from doing shows now as well. Are you making work for yourself right now - or what do you feel is the venue for your work in the future?

AM: Initially, I’ve always made work for myself. When I went to school in Boston I thought about [doing] a show in Milwaukee where it’s just - you go around town and find things in the woods. I have put pieces in the woods a lot lately. Or, I’ve been doing it over the years. I don’t know if I ever cared about galleries so much until it became an opportunity or something that I can do myself, and I’ve been doing it for years. 

JW: When you put work out in the woods or in public, do you ever document it or come back to those sites?

AM: Sometimes I take photos for myself but sometimes I just a leave it. A lot of stuff was shit I was dealing with, some abstract shit I was dealing with, with my old man or something with alcohol or whatever. It’s like here’s a piece, it’s not meant for anybody. Then with my ex, shit what am I going to do with all these fucking paintings, so I just put them out in the woods, or a spot that we used to go to, not everything, but a lot of it because I was like fuck it - I don’t even care so sell this shit. 

But the concept of shows, it never materialized into what I envisioned – I wanted people to come that were from the [part of the] city where I live now, but you are always running into this culture that is primarily from an educated field or affluent or it’s the same – you are not reaching any different crowd or anything like that. It never got to the point that I felt like OK, this is legit. 

JW: So do you feel disappointed by the feedback you get about your work? [Your work] is clearly coming from a more blue-collar perspective, working-class hero.  

AM: I mean, I like you saying that I want blue-collar people coming…

JW: Yeah, that you want them to be there and the absence of them is disappointing, or the feedback that you get from people who aren’t part of that community doesn’t mean as much.

AM: I don’t know if I can answer this question at this point because I’ve just kind of – it doesn’t matter to me anymore. 

JW: Right, but when you were doing the shows or making a push for that – that was a goal and you don’t feel it was being met. 

AM: In 2012 when I was making shows, I applied for the Peace Corps and I was thinking about leaving so I wanted to do shows with my friends. I wanted to do shows with the art environment and I always wanted to push us to reach our potential in terms of expression and creation. It wasn’t about creating an avant-garde, it was just about doing it and letting it be. I mean promotion, yeah, we could have done a better promotion or things like that but it was more about the production, building the walls and having legitimate work. The authenticity of the work it what matters to me the most, it’s not about the sales, it’s not about who is in there per se, it’s like, is this work valid? That’s where it comes to with me, is my work valid, is what I’m doing valid. With an art dealer like I had for awhile, still have technically, sometimes he would like a shit drawing and it gets in your head like “Oh man”, and you find yourself doing shittier drawings sometimes…

[Both Laughing]

…and conversely, it’s like “Oh my watercolors sell”. Well, I’m not going to do a watercolor, fuck that shit. You know? I’m not going to do it for anybody. 

But getting offline, OK. What I tried to do on Facebook – because it was free, I think it bought into my idea of talking about blue-collar and commonality. My name for painting and drawing is Acme, which is my initials, which is kind of a joke, but it’s also about generic conceptualism or something, I don’t fucking know. I like the common shit because it is kind of what Milwaukee is in terms of how we present ourselves somehow, or used to. I thought Facebook was a good concept because you could get people to look at your art, everybody, without having to pay for it or it being too difficult – here, you have a web page, you have an artist page. I put a lot of stuff out there that was particular and very personal, some of it, some too personal and I had it out there for awhile and then I just didn’t want to have it out there anymore. 

JW: Was that a feeling of being overexposed? 

AM: That’s part of it but I just think there’s so much self indulgence on the web that it became like masturbation, here I made this art piece and now I’m going to write about it, and I want you all to look at it. Please love me. I think that we are trying to build some sort of fucking, “this is our history, we are trying to build something for people to look at when we are gone”, or something. It’s just not alive to me; it seems like self-adulation. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like an experience being online looking at other people’s art. Although, it is cool to see some stuff you like, but still it is like so temporary and so you just throw it away, consume and discard, along with a lot of things in our culture. 

JW: Now you are doing the small-scale paintings of the lake.

AM: Yeah I’m doing the studies of the lake. Because I don’t like when you take a photo it just changes everything. There’s a bit of land I’m incorporating into… 

JW: You always go to the same spot?

AM: I always go to the same spot, yeah, I try to. There’s this little man-hole, I think it’s actually a pot hole, that I try to park by.  Then I’m going to bring the Monet- sized canvas and paint the lake here – 

JW: What is Monet-size? Give me some dimensions here.

[Both gesturing at a wall]

AM: I mean a huge fucking painting, like up here, to there, to there.

JW: Like a 5 by 5? 

AM: 5 by…well, it’s a rectangle. [Looks at me like I’m an idiot]

JW: Okay.

AM: So, 5 by I don’t know, 4 1/2. I’m always kind of skipping around in things though too. That’s going to be me [gestures at large blank canvas] because I want to do portraits of all my friends, my guy friends that I grew up with.

JW: Oh, I see how it is. 

[Both Laughing]

AM: Well…well you are going to be on one of those ones! [points at smaller stretched canvas] You are going to be on a smaller one, don’t be jealous. But I have to make all these frames for it and I want these fuckers to pose but I don’t even think they are going to pose for me, those fuckers, speaking of blue-collar mentality those fuckers will not do shit when it comes to art, you know?

JW: [Laughing] That is what your challenge is, otherwise it’s not fun.

AM: I know. We were going to some fucking class thing in high school, it was an assembly and we were all going there and they were like, “Are you fucking wearing a dress?” and I’m like “Yep.”

[Both Laughing]

I played football with them, all these guys. I’m going to wait until I paint them to paint me, so once that’s done…this will be the future project. [Points to blank canvas] This is a Mona-Lisa-sized canvas and I’m going to do this with a girl, a lady friend. Not you.

JW: Fine.

AM: And we are going to paint each other and…but here’s an animation that I didn’t show you from Texas. The left hand is kind of like my old mans hand, smokes or whatever. That’s the problem, how do you deal with death, you know? I had a hard fucking time – he died when I was 18, I mourned for like 3 years. Just every day, and it was shitty, wow. I didn’t tell anybody in Boston that for the first year that my dad had just died and that, blah blah blah. I don’t know why, but now I tell everybody everything. 

JW: You would have had to deal with a lot of questions and unwanted opinions and advice.

AM: It probably could have got me laid out there.

JW: Well, you missed that opportunity. I’m sorry for you. [Laughing]

AM: Well I wasn’t as extroverted, I was outgoing - but about my internal feelings, I wasn’t as extroverted as I am now.  My girl for the longest time, we shared letters and I could tell her anything. I think she helped me push my art forward, just writing letters to her. It helped me express myself and then I would do these crazy drawings that – I don’t know. That’s why you need somebody to fucking talk with while you are in the studio. You can’t just be doing it all on your own, or you go crazy. God, Frankie you fucking stink. [a visiting dog-in-residence is demanding attention] And then she’ll sleep right on your neck.

JW: [Laughing] And then she does yoga. [Frankie does downward-facing dog pose] Cute. The end. 

—————-

[Post-Script: This interview, although fairly long, doesn’t even begin to unwrap Anthony’s body of work in the 9 years we have been friends and art school colleagues. His near-constant reaction to and interpretation of his surrounding environment, paired with his ability to connect and create with other artists has resulted in a prolific and diverse body of work tied securely together with recognizable and evolving themes. Post-interview topics included: getting a fish fry, going to the gym, trying not to drink, dead animals, and burned drawings. Anthony’s most succinct philosophy for going forward in life was wisely revealed to be, “Grow up, put your dick away, drop the bottle”.] 

Additional Images:

Boot Sculpture

Boot Sculpture

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