Artwork that’s inspired by music

One of Russell Mills' pieces which appear in the exhibition Cargo in the Blood and Now Then opening this weekend at the Artworks 1830 Gallery in Halifax.
One of Russell Mills' pieces which appear in the exhibition Cargo in the Blood and Now Then opening this weekend at the Artworks 1830 Gallery in Halifax.
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Yorkshire-born album designer Russell Mills has an exhibition of his work opening in Halifax this weekend. Duncan Seaman reports.

With a CV that includes commissions for some of music’s most cerebral practitioners, including Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Michael Nyman, Russell Mills is one of Britain’s foremost and distinctive album packaging designers.

Opening this weekend a new exhibition at The Artworks gallery in Halifax showcases 30 works that the Yorkshire-born artist produced for the album Hesitation Marks by the American electro-rock group Nine Inch Nails. It’s called Cargo in the Blood.

“I’d been asked to consider having an exhibition there a while back and this commission came up soon afterwards,” says the 62-year-old who is originally from Ripon.

“We did plan the exhibition a bit earlier but then had to postpone it a little bit because the work for the Nine Inch Nails project took solidly about four months of five-day working.

“And even though they originally just wanted a few images for covers I got so immersed in it I ended up doing 30 pieces. They decided they liked them so much they thought they’d release at least four of them on different album covers and different versions.”

The inspiration behind this psychologically charged collection of paintings and collages – that juxtapose traditional art materials with chemicals and organic matter such as earth, blood, teeth and crushed glass – was “quite complicated”, Mills says.

“Prior to getting this commission I’d kind of come to a point where I was just questioning everything I was doing to such a point where I’d reached a paralysis on analysis, if you like. I was just thinking so much about what I was trying to do and what 
I had done and where I wanted to go that I’d kind of stopped.”

This coincided with some difficult domestic problems including dealing with his wife’s alcoholism, a divorce and the death of his father.

“It kind of floored me in all sorts of ways,” he says.

“The commission came about and it suddenly unlocked everything because in talking to Trent Reznor about the main period I’d worked with him before, which was the album Downward Spiral in 1994 when he was in a bad state – he was into drugs and alcohol – so this album, from conversations with him, was kind of about trying to deal with that anger, confusion, depression, all that sort of thing, so there was common ground.

“I was given licence to really explore all these ideas and feelings that I’d had in a very confused way for several years. It really was cathartic, I really just let rip with this work, that’s why I produced so much.”

The rest of the exhibition, called Now Then, features works that are “complementary to a lot of themes or preoccupations that central to this work for Nine Inch Nails.”

Mills says he usually has good relations with the musicians who commission his work. “Generally they come to me because they 
trust me and they respect what I do and and they 
want me to do what I want to do they don’t really get involved too much, which is good.

“Sometimes they’re a bit more hands on and that has to be negotiated. Sometimes when they’re like that it’s finer because they’re on a similar mental level or you share the same interests or directions, so that’s easy, and sometimes people don’t want to get involved at all, they’re quite happy to let you get on with that.”