Interview with Mercury Twenty Artist Charlie Milgrim

Artist Charlie Milgrim is one of five M20 members who have been with the Gallery since nearly its’ inception in 2007

Here’s an interview with Kathleen King from 2008.

We encourage you to check out her newer work at her recently relaunched website .

She is also selling reasonably priced prints online in our store






Interview with Kathleen King

Portrait by Peter Honig

March 6, 2008

Tell me where you’re from and something about your childhood.
I was born and grew up in New York City. My father was a concert pianist, who stayed home and practiced every day, and my mother was a college professor.

Did the fact that your father was a musician and your mother an educator influence you? How did you come to be an artist?
I did study music, took private violin lessons and played clarinet in the junior high school band (laughs) but I knew I didn’t want to be a musician. I realized early on there was a calling for me that had to do with art. Even when I was about five years old, I felt that things that I drew were really important.

So you got into art through drawing?
I wasn’t sure why, but my drawings were the most meaningful things for me when I was growing up. They are what sparked me, but I didn’t really find my way with art until my teens.

You came out to the west coast for college?
I went to The California College of Arts and Crafts, where I focused on glassblowing and metalwork. I loved the fire arts! I studied with Marvin Lipofsky and Dennis Leon. This was when I first got interested in sculpture. The techniques and processes really fascinated me. It was all new and wonderfully challenging.

Then you went to UC Berkeley for graduate school?
I did. But in between the two, there were a number of years where I did window display, and installations for New Wave clubs. This was a very formative period. I loved the immediacy of putting up a display and getting feedback. It’s very much like doing installation—many artists cut their teeth on window display—Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol. It was good groundwork for what I do now, which is working with space and visuals.

Growing up in New York I saw fantastic window display all the time—and a lot of art. My mother had a membership to the MOMA and we went often. I liked all the art at the MOMA when I was young, but my biggest, early influences were Duchamp and Cornell.

So through Duchamp you became interested in conceptual sculpture, which is a big part of your work now.
Papa Duchamp was also the patron saint of many artists here in the Bay Area. I was also influenced by the work of David Ireland, Paul Kos, Ann Hamilton and Rebecca Horn.

I see an affinity with your work and that of Paul Kos. The simplicity; the way you both hone it down to the symbols, objects, space, and let them all play together.
I studied a fair amount in the time between art school and graduate school. I basically educated myself during that period. I also traveled extensively, hung around and attended a lot of lectures the SF Art Institute. It’s interesting how all that developed in my own work. I don’t always see all the influences but I guess that they are there.

My work comes from another place I can’t really identify. Images often come through a glimpse. I don’t deeply meditate about them. Often the objects I find inform me of the direction of the work.

How did you get into using found objects in your work?
That came out of the window display, because I was constantly collecting objects and putting them together, so my dialog with “things” grew out of that. The task of attracting attention to sell products became another dilemma for me. I felt it was really important to communicate what I was passionate about. I realized that instead of selling products I could sell ideas, environmental and political action. I understood that because people were so influenced by advertising, that this form gave me a way in, a way to communicate or “advertise” my ideas to people. That was my original impetus for it.

Early on I did a piece called Pretty Hands and Feet, which I made in a wooden box that contained bottles of this product called Pretty Hands and Feet.

Oh, I know that product. (laughs)
I put this cheesy Renoir-like print with dainty hands and feet in as a backdrop, next to several bottles of pickled pig’s feet, I liked the ironic interplay between these commercial products.

I traveled to Egypt in 1987, it was an amazing experience. I was really moved by the power of the scale of the monuments. When I came back, I wanted to bring that narrative in, so I did a few pieces using pyramid forms. I did a whole series called Secrets of the Pyramids. One day I was driving up San Pablo Ave. and I ran across about a hundred huge machine nuts, they must have fallen off a truck, so I parked, and collected them all and I made a pyramid piece out of them. There was also a stuffed iguana in that piece. I found weird relationships between the pyramids and stuff I found in my everyday environment.

You must have felt the strangeness of the ancient place of Egypt and the modern place you came back to live in.
It was really emotional and dramatic for me to see the cradle of civilization and all the art which has been preserved for thousands of years. It was important to me to see the immense value this art had to its civilization. It made me more driven and determined as an artist after witnessing the power of Egyptian art in its context.

So you went from this pyramid shape which is elemental, to being well-known for working with the sphere, more specifically, the bowling ball. How did that come about?
That came out of a trip as well. I took a drive across country with Ray Beldner—an artist who was a big influence, a collaborator, and my husband at the time. We were making a hand-held film we called The Magical Misery Tour. We went to various environmentally toxic hotspots like coal-fired electric plants which were blamed for acid rain, Nevada silver mines where birds were being killed by cyanide gases just by flying over them, that kind of thing.  It was amazing that we got access to a lot of places, being young, innocent-looking student types, they let us in and talked to us very frankly sometimes, and sometimes not so frankly.

One of the places we went on this trip was Carlsbad, New Mexico. Near there, the US Government planned to bury nuclear waste, which would be trucked in from all over the US. So here I had gone to the desert of Egypt and now I was in the American desert, which seemed to me like a very sacred place, but they were planning to defile it and basically create an environmental disaster. My first bowling ball piece, Carlsbad Lanes, getting back to that (laughs) was an installation sponsored by Haines Gallery at 49 Geary. There was a huge unused space in that building which had been a Western Union Telegram station. Cheryl Haines got about 10 artists together to do installations in this raw space before it was re-fashioned into upscale art galleries. I went in and saw a black stripe of linoleum on the floor that cut through the space, and I immediately envisioned the piece. I decided to make a bowling alley and use it as a metaphor for the burying of nuclear waste. I used 50 gallon drums as bowling pins so the scale was extreme. I got real bowling balls and sandblasted the words Earth, Air, Water and Fire on them. I covered the drums with salt, because that’s what they were planning to do, bury the drums of nuclear waste in salt! I was so disturbed about this after that trip; I did this first bowling ball piece in response.

Did you then just get entranced with the bowling balls?
By that time I was in graduate school and about eight months after I did the first piece, I finally did fall in love with the balls. I did a piece with two music stands. I put them up against the wall, and I put two bowling balls on them and they held; they just balanced by gravity up against the wall! It just amazed me, that these very heavy, perfectly round objects could be held by almost nothing at all. After that they were all I could think about. It was the beginning of a love affair that lasted a number of years.

You’ve explored so many aspects of the bowling balls whether it was the weight, their spherical/planetary nature, their likeness to human heads, the fiery patterns that they often have on the surface… 
I use them as metaphors for a lot of different things. I have about 600 of them. I did a piece that the DiRosa Preserve in Napa has where I used 80 black bowling balls. They tend to work best when you use all one color. In Department of Appropriations, I hung 25 bright red balls from the ceiling at Gallery 16. Sometimes I just need a lot at once. (Laughs)

For DiRosa, you did a piece with bowling balls in a bathtub.
Originally I visualized the All For Me piece after my friend David Raymond offered me a gaudy spa to do an installation at the Trident Hotel Art Expo in San Francisco. All the bowling balls were sandblasted with the word “ME”, it was a piece about ridiculous opulence. This is where Rene saw the work. When it was first installed at the Preserve it was staged in a claw foot tub and put in an outdoor area. I discovered a huge marble spa in Rene’s former home at the DiRosa Preserve, where he let me move it, so now its site is much closer to my original idea of the piece as a metaphor for decadence.

You also did one where the tub is upended and all the balls are spilling out.

That’s called Spill and it’s about water issues.

That’s great. I love what you do and how you are not heavy-handed with your politics. You use humor very subtly, and I wonder how you feel about humor in art and the way you approach that?
Growing up in New York, everything had to be funny, and if it wasn’t funny it didn’t exist! It’s culturally part of the way my brain got wired. Humor is a key – a way to get people to follow what you’re saying. Like art, humor is what separates us from lower life forms.

Well, humor is an art. It’s one of the classic arts but people don’t think of it that way so much anymore. It’s not easy to make people laugh, or think. Humor is connecting disparate things and surprising people.
It’s a way to make a connection. I did a couple of pieces called Nice Jugs and Nice Set. Those started when I was in a junk store called Economy Corner. Actually, it’s where Rock, Paper, Scissors Gallery is now. I saw this jug when I was in there and I said to myself, “Ooh, nice jug.” (Laughs)

(Laughs) And you cracked yourself up.
Yeah, I cracked myself up and I thought, oh my god, this is slang that I heard when I was growing up. So of course I got two of them and hung them on a wall in conjunction with some movie marquee letters and pawed out letters. That was in the SF Art Institute’s Nine Bay Area Women show.

Gender is another theme that your work often touches on?
It’s there. I let the work go in a lot of directions. At the root though, I need to make something formally interesting out of it. All the elements need to come together.

A technical question: you sandblast words on to the objects you use. How do you do that?
I cut a vinyl mask, form it to the object, then I use a sandblaster, which is a high -pressure air gun that shoots sand, and slowly erodes the material. You do it in a sealed box so that the sand doesn’t fly all over, or get in or on you. It’s like a paint sprayer but at a much higher velocity.

What are you working on for your April show at Mercury 20?
I’m drawn to aggression—missiles and guns—it’s in the zeitgeist, so I’m doing some work with that. Of course we are a country at war right now, which is being swept under the rug and hidden behind a veil of technology and economic prosperity…

Lack of journalism?
Yeah, grey journalism and everything deceptive. The latest work is about war and peace, aggression and dissent. The show will be called Homeland. So we are working with all those issues. It’s going to be clear in intent, but poetic. People won’t be clubbed over the head when they enter the gallery. But that’s what I’m after—to work politically, and poetically, and always with irony.


view Charlie Milgrim’s website