Artist in Profile: Jay Millar

Pop art creations so cool, they’re refrigerated

  • “I got one review,” Jay Millar says, recalling his first New York art show. “The guy said I take canvases, paint them, and then make them look like refrigerator doors. In the same column, they also said they needed a new art critic. I thought, ‘Yes, you do need a new art critic because what I’m painting on really are refrigerator doors.’ They were making my art a lot deeper than it actually was.
         “What was really more exciting to me was having Arturo Vega, the graphic designer who created the Ramones’ logo, say he liked my art at the show. That really floored me.”
         Millar’s appreciation for the opinion of a punk rock graphic designer over a New York art critic speaks to the ethos he brings to his art. However deep one might argue Millar’s art is, there’s little doubt that it’s immediately eye-catching and engaging — the hallmarks of great graphic design. His paintings are pure pop art — large, oversized recreations of familiar objects: a roll of Life Savers candy, a concert ticket, a package of baseball cards, or an old, often-played cassette tape. The surprise comes with the recognition of his unusual choice of surfaces.
         “I like to think of it as double-take art,” he explains. “People will look at it and either like it or not, but they’ll recognize it as a Jell-O package or whatever. Then it hits them that it’s painted on a refrigerator door.”
         Growing up in suburban Detroit, Millar says his passion for art and the appeal of transforming items that others viewed as trash began at an early age. “I was always a garbage picker,” he says. “I would find stuff and make other things out of it, like accessories for my G.I. Joes or whatever. In high school, I took every art class they offered until I got to the point where they let me do whatever I wanted and they’d grade me on it. I was a member of the National Art Honors Society. I did get some small scholarship offers, but I was kind of immature, so I passed them up.”
         After graduating from high school in 1994, Millar put his interest in art aside when another obsession came to the forefront. “I got a part-time job with Polygram Records right out of high school,” he says. “They told me if I got a four-year degree, they’d find a permanent job for me, so I really didn’t have the standard college experience. I attended classes and finished my degree at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, but all my free time was spent going to concerts.”
         His plans for a career in the music business went temporarily off track when his position with Polygram was eliminated in a corporate merger. After graduation, Millar secured a position with BMG Music, which brought him to New York and eventually back to art.
         “My first year in New York, I was living alone in a little studio apartment, and then I got my first roommate,” Millar says. “At the time I had my refrigerator covered with magnets — mostly from the record company — and I was thinking I needed to have less clutter while I was walking down the street, and there was a set of refrigerator doors sitting out with the trash in front of a restaurant. I took them back, cleaned them, removed the inside so they would fit flush on the wall, and moved all my magnets to them. But I kept looking at them and thinking I needed to do something else with them.”
         It wasn’t very long before inspiration came from a ubiquitous source. “I got the idea while riding on the subway and it struck me that refrigerator doors were a rectangle just like the Metro card (the prepaid cards used for subway fares),” he recalls. “I made the stencils using just paper and an X-Acto knife, and then used spray paint. I decided to hang the two doors in a corner because you see hundreds of folded, discarded Metro cards in the subway. Once a card is used up people just fold them and drop them — that way the homeless people know it’s a dead card.” Pleased with the results, Millar decided to create more tributes to everyday New York “art.”
         “I made a series of New York images on New York refrigerator doors,” Millar says. “A New York parking ticket, the choking victim sign with instructions for the Heimlich maneuver that is posted in restaurants, the paper coffee cup that all the bagel vendors use, a sign for the ‘L’ train being out of service, the cleanup after your dog sign, and various subway signs.” Thanks to New York laws, the supply of refrigerator doors was seemingly endless.
         “Because of what they call the Punky Brewster law in New York, the doors of refrigerators have to be removed when you discard them,” he says. “At the first of the month, or the end of the month, you can just walk around Manhattan and find refrigerator doors sitting out with the trash.”
         In 2007, Millar accepted a position as the director of marketing for United Record Pressing in Nashville. With the move from the Big Apple to the Music City, he thought the door was closing on that portion of his artistic endeavors, but local inspiration soon led him to more cool designs.
         “When I moved to Nashville I was going to let go of it,” Millar says, “but I decided to do some Nashvillethemed pieces. The first was a ketchup package for the Tomato Art Fest in 2009.”
         His first Nashville piece opened up ideas for other graphic designs that appealed to him, such as consumer products and classic advertising images. His love of music also brought a unique idea that was a perfect match for refrigerator doors.
         “My first-ever trip to Nashville was to see Tom Waits at the Ryman,” Millar says. “I decided to commemorate the trip and my moving to Nashville by recreating my ticket with the fridge door as the main portion of the ticket and the freezer door as the tearoff stub. It’s since become a series of concert tickets. I did two more Tom Waits tickets from that show with different seat numbers, a James Brown ticket, and I’m working on a commission right now for a Danzig ticket.” Expanding his range of surfaces beyond refrigerator doors, Millar also produced several functioning rain barrels that recreated the classic Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and Morton Salt container for the 2012 and 2013 Tomato Art Fests.
         “Most of the doors I’ve done are from the 1970s,” Millar says. “They are my favorite to work with. They’re flat, smooth, with no texture, a really blank canvas, and they’re kind of ugly, so it’s easy to make it interesting. The ones that give me anxiety are doors from the ’30s and ’40s. They’re already beautiful on their own and I feel like there’s a greater likelihood of screwing them up rather than improving them. I’ve done a Life Savers roll, and it was perfect because it was rounded like the package and one end was flat so that lent itself to the wrinkled foil at one end. On another, it had a rounded, concave area behind the handle, and I stared at it a long time before figuring out that it would be perfect for the baseball on a classic baseball card package from the ’70s.”
         Although the variety of Millar’s fridge door paintings has expanded, finding doors in Nashville proved to be more complicated than just walking down the street. “I’ve placed ads on Craigslist, and I found a local junk collector and offered him more than the recycling center would pay,” he says. “I have plenty of blanks on hand now, and in some commissions, people actually have their own doors.”
         In addition to his art hanging in several Nashville locations — the offices of Infinity Cat Records, Welcome to 1979 recording studios, radio station WXNA, and many East Nashville homes — Millar maintains a rotating showing at Yeast Nashville. He also continues to work in the record business, currently as creative & catalog development director for reissue label Sundazed Music. While his paintings often draw comparisons to pop art great Andy Warhol, Millar doesn’t consider it a wholly accurate comparison.
         “I am a Warhol fan,” he says, “but I’m more a fan of the commercial artists whose designs I’m ripping off. I’m a real fan of utilitarian design. For a big chunk of my life there was a time I would look at advertising and think why would any artist not want to do advertising? It was art. I like celebrating the beauty of ‘mundane’ things, but I also really love the idea of taking something small and blowing it up so you can see the detail and beauty.”
         “My own opinion on my art is that I have a very unsteady hand and poor execution, but really good concepts. So I found a niche that works for me. This may sound pompous but I like to think my art is more the Ramones than it is Sam Cooke. I love both, but like the Ramones, I have a good idea, and I’m doing the best with what I got.”