Wrap Your Head Around Jeff Mihalyo

Jeff Mihalyo is a painter who renders fantastic landscapes in hot pink corals, glowing golds and incandescent greens. A closer look reveals an omnipresent, underlying thread of the uncanny and uncertain, his scenery routinely inhabited by uprooted structures levitating in the sky, cities aflame or figures lost at sea. Mihalyo’s practice extends beyond the painting for which he’s known, however, and a meander around his studio reveals a restless compulsion to dabble in almost any medium, whether it be 3-D imaging or eggshells. Even his conspicuous, two-year-old beard is part of an ongoing time-based project that involves music and video projection.

“For years I worked primarily in this smaller size,” Mihalyo says as he invites us into a sunny studio located in his Fremont home and gestures at half a dozen paintings scattered across a work surface. At under 12 inches, the minute details sparkle. “People used to harangue me: how come your work is so small? So I started scaling up and eventually transitioned to only making work at a large scale. Then of course people started complaining: why don’t you make small work anymore? When I was working at this size, I would often make up to a hundred paintings a year. They’re all made on recycled blocks of wood from Ballard Bookcase Company. They used to just throw it in the dumpster and I’d collect it all.”

“I’ve been drawing my whole life,” Mihalyo says. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. I have crates of sketchbooks. Probably in total about 80. I draw in them every day and plot out all my paintings here.”

“This was the original drawing for that painting,” Mihalyo says, pointing to an image spangled with rainbow starbursts and a teddy bear of Macy’s parade proportions. “It’s a personal story having to do with someone who came into my life at a difficult time when my ship was burning, so to speak. I was trying to stay afloat and they were trying to jump on me, use me for a lifeline. All my work has some dark corners to it, whether it’s rooted in the autobiographical or commentary on social phenomena. Because the paintings are so bright and colorful, people don’t tend to read them that way initially.”

A video queued up on Mihalyo’s laptop reveals the project that inspired the hair: “This video was shot in a garage in Ballard. I pulled my hair back, put white shoe polish on my beard, then projected images onto it. The movies were made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with my photographer friend Marcus, who I met in 6th grade. At the time we were doing stop motion animation together. Those are the movies we are projecting. So this film took about 36 years to make! A lot of people hate the beard,” Mihalyo says, laughing. “But you know what? It’s not about you. I’m not trying to be pretty in your landscape! I’m doing it for art.”

Another of Mihalyo’s undertakings is making rudimentary stereoscopic images—the type looked at through antique Victorian stereoscopic viewers. Since the ’90s he has been building miniature sets of abstract landscapes on his studio table, then uses cameras made from the optics in vintage, three-pass flat bed scanners to shoot them. “You get a lot of people in your life offering advice about your artistic career,” Mihalyo says. “Just focus on one thing and your career can hang off that one thing. I tend to just do what I want. It can make it difficult for people to wrap their heads around me.”

Scattered around the studio are crates filled with tiny, egg-shaped sculptures made from recycled paint fastidiously poured—thin layer upon thin layer—into eggshells. Each layer can take up to a week to dry. “I had a lot of leftover house paint getting moldy,” he explains. “One day I started pouring it into eggs. When the shell is peeled off, the striations and patterns are more or less uncontrolled, arbitrary. I started nerding out and cracking eggs in more specific ways to create better containers. I have dozens of them now and I’m trying to finish them all so I can take them to the farmer’s market and set up shop amongst the other egg vendors.”

About Mihalyo’s process: “I build up the thinnest layers of oil paint, using tiny, 000-size brushes. I’m basically using a 15th-century Flemish painting technique, but bastardizing it into luminous candy colors rather than attempting a more realistic palette. Lately I’ve been experimenting with acrylic underpaintings finally, because in the wintertime the off-gassing from oils can be excruciating. In the summer I take canvases out and paint in my backyard.” Mihalyo also plays extensively with depth of field, rendering parts of the landscape fuzzily out of focus to force the eyes to particular places.

“The structure in this painting is the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. I flooded it, turning the tables into islands.”

“This is a mural I made for the OK Hotel Bar,” Mihalyo says about a massive painting that spans his hallway. “Together these two pieces measure 20 feet long. I used to be the poster designer for OK Hotel back in the day, so I knew all the people there well—the owners, bartenders, patrons, all the people who helped build it. They’re all here. While I was working as an animator at Microsoft for seven years, I would come home at nights and work on this painting. It was the only painting I made during that period.”

“I have lots of Italian stuff in my work,” Mihalyo says. “Whenever I travel, my art reflects the architecture and aesthetic of that region for a while. I haven’t traveled since my last trip to China, so things are still kind of stuck in that mode a bit.”

After a turn around a bucolic backyard where Mihalyo sets up shop in the summer, a dip into the basement reveals a wood shop filled with the stretchers and other components used to build canvases. One dusty corner is storage for his oldest works. “These are some of my very earliest paintings from the early ‘90s,” he says. “Really dark. Too dark. Skulls, twisters, babies, lots of black and purple. A lot of male angst in your 20s kind of stuff. I eventually moved toward more figurative work, which eventually paved the way to my career in animation.”

Mihalyo’s transition to working as an animator in the corporate world was circuitous. “I bumbled my way into it,” he says. “I was hired as an illustrator for a t-shirt company in Tukwila in the ‘90s. They hated my work and relegated me to the darkroom to shoot type. A friend from that place went on to work at Microsoft and recommended me for a position there. I excelled and eventually ended up working for Dreamworks. I worked on films like Jurassic Park and Men In Black. Those were good years, but eventually I quit that job to spend more time painting.”

“Architecture plays a large role in what I do, probably because of my upbringing: My father was the general manager of the Journal of Commerce, a family-run, local publication produced primarily for the construction and legal land use real estate industry. All public notices and proposals of land use are in this paper. Ever since I was a little kid I was involved in some way—running the newspaper press, inking up the plates, working in the darkroom. I know where all the shit is buried in these streets. I know where the fiber optics are. You know, just general dinner table conversation!”

Pictured below, Mihalyo stands in front of his painting at Axis Gallery in Pioneer Square, where he has moved his work for a solo exhibit shortly after our studio visit. “Like a lot of my work, this triptych is a reflection of my travels, made after I returned from a trip to China in 2010,” he says. “The piece was informed by all the construction going on there. They were building like crazy and I was fascinated by the simultaneous construction and ruin. I fused the two together—a kind of ruins undergoing perpetual construction.”