'Hitten Switches': Of Communal Recognition

The mail-art collaboration 'Hitten Switches,' by Travis Millard and Michael Sieben, is a journal, a two-person diary, an ode to friendship, and a manifestation of a respectful relationship

'Hitten Switches': Of Communal Recognition

Do you like pen pals? Do you like getting good mail? Austinite Michael Sieben and Los Angeles, Calif., resident Travis Millard do. That's why they started sending drawings back and forth to each other through the mail and eventually developed a book around it. Mail art projects are part of the modern art tradition, relating to anti-consumerism genres, Dada's exquisite corpses, communalism, and other collaborative exercises. In theirs, Millard and Sieben have created a poetic and sincere document, Hitten Switches. It's a journal, it's a two-person diary, it's an ode to friendship, and it is a manifestation of a respectful relationship.

They began with careful pencil lines, then gradually added black ink, text bubbles, more graphite backgrounds, and finally red pen. They slowly built up these drawings, which found their way into the hands of Mike Aho, which led to Volcom Stone publishing a 40-page, two-color art book of the project. The Okay Mountain exhibit "Hitten Switches" features their original drawings, the book, and T-shirts by both artists. The show has already toured to Brooklyn and Los Angeles. This week it comes to Austin, then the final stop is Tokyo.

For a collaboration without erasing, these two made a series of excellent compositional choices over the years. Their consistency, tenacity, and ability to approach the paper from a respectful angle are impressive. This was an additive process, but it was done with restraint, a delicate touch, a wry humor, and some sentimentality. The attention to texture is shared, as is the communal recognition of icons, be they fonts or characters or phrases. Millard and Sieben clearly speak the same visual language.

Lately I've begun noticing a lot of deer or stags in various artists' work. It seems to be a reflection of artists looking at early American landscape painting, like the work of the Hudson Valley school, a reification of noble nature. These amazing paintings were created for an audience of basically bourgeois Puritans. This Middle American audience is always appealing to artists. In Hitten Switches, a stag is leaking refuse from its stomach: tires, boots, and classic items, the refuse flowing down into a meadow as the noble creature looks up at the rosy setting sun.

The next page is The Centerfold, a complicated multicharactered piece. In the upper left are three stags, two with angel wings and one between them that's looking up at a cloud and saying, "Hi, Lord." The tone is in line with the Puritan view of the Stag as worthy of a coat of arms, of a wallpaper pattern, icon of nature's power. But when you focus on the lower part of this picture, the tone changes completely.

A skateboarder has a "rad balls" insignia on the underside of the board. To his left is another boarder on a ramp, and the various gory typefaces used on the ramp and T-shirts of the skaters scream Nineties nostalgia. Penciled lightly around the skater area are the words "Lilelephant – circa 1997," "Seguin," "Bueno," "Fudge Factory," and "S.S. Lonely Voyage." To translate: Lollapalooza; Sieben's hometown; his new deal, www.buenoskateboards.com; Millard's design studio in L.A.; and a miniversion of an awesome painting Sieben made last year. So for me, this Centerfold drawing holds the documentation of real events, real artistic actions, remembrances of the past, and some things that go well beyond cartooning. The layers of meaning are personal, careful, and truthful, so a depth of sentiment is evolved over years of friendship and visual understanding.

Go on over to Okay Mountain and see what is good about these drawings, even if you don't know anything about skateboarding or the Nineties. You still might think they're rad. At the book's beginning, there's a page that I identify as the artists' self-portraits: It features two big, fat slug worms and bubble captions. It's a humble perspective to begin the book from the larval state.

"Hitten Switches" runs June 24-July 1 at Okay Mountain, 1312 E. Cesar Chavez, Ste. B. For more information, visit www.okaymountain.com.

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Hitten Switches, Michael Sieben, Travis Millard, Mike Aho, Volcom Stone, Okay Mountain, Fudge Factory

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