I did not know of this artist’s work until I went to his exhibition, Wardell Milan: Parisian Landscapes, Blue Zenith, at David Nolan (April 19 – June 14, 2019). I left the exhibition mystified and intrigued. Here was a representational artist who was not a literalist, nor was he telegraphing his content. In a time when many artists and writers are content to establish one-to-one correspondences between signifier and signified, sign and meaning, I found Milan’s ambiguity to be refreshing. Later, I found a statement he made: “ I’m always interested in creating images that have this sense of inviting and repelling at the same time, of being both beautiful and grotesque.” (Jean Dykstra, photograph, January-February 2019).
The exhibition consists of 11 works, all of which contain figures or a figural element, done in a variety of mediums, materials, and processes. There were black-and-white photographs, with each print measuring 40 by 40 inches; large collages made of cut-and-pasted pieces of paper; mixed-media works in charcoal, graphite, pastel, oil pastel, acrylic paint, and cutouts on hand-dyed paper. In another work, Milan drew in graphite, gesso, and etching ink on an inkjet print, as well as affixed collage elements to it. Finally, in “Every man gets sad, he does. I am no exception to this” (2019), the artist drew in charcoal and painted in acrylic and oil on board.
Three things occurred to me while standing in front of the work. First, drawing and collage are of equal importance. Second, the disparity of materials and processes is echoed in the subject matter, which touches upon identity as a layered amalgamation created out of different parts or references. If — as has often been said — identity is a construction, Milan’s process mirrors its fabrication as an act of the imagination. He has made portrait collages derived from a single source — Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, for example, or the work of Diane Arbus. In the collage, “Man with an Indian headdress, N.Y.C.” (2017), we wonder about the man’s relationship to the headdress. In the words of Walt Whitman, the “I” can embrace multitudes. I think Milan is deliberately challenging our understanding of the term “appropriation” and how we apply it. Is the person in the collage an example of colonial behavior? If so, why? At the very least, Milan is suggesting that identity remains fluid and does not necessarily have to become fixed.
The third thing I noticed is that the color blue is found in eight of the 11 exhibited works. It is apparent that blue has many possible meanings in these works, and that Milan wants all of them to be in play: the Blues, which originated in the Deep South, signaling the end of slavery, and is characterized by a call-and-response pattern; feeling blue (or down in the dumps); transcendence and spirituality, as suggested by the Virgin Mary’s robes; and death. I also think Milan is using blue in skin tones in order to disrupt color as a racial marker.
At the same time, he is dealing with loaded subject matter, such as the mass killing of 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 16, 2016. In “Pulse” (2019), which is done in charcoal, graphite, pastel, oil pastel, cut-and-pasted paper, and acrylic paint on a large sheet of hand-dyed paper measuring 66 7/8 by 83 ½ inches, he locates the viewer on the edge of a geometrically patterned floor stretching back until it reaches a blue wall, which spans the upper third of the painting.
Almost all the figures are grouped on the painting’s left side, taking up around three-fifths of the dance floor, with one shirtless figure in the far left foreground, standing sideways, head turned and looking at you, implicating your presence. It is not clear if the young man’s look — with red hair and blue highlights on his pink face — is one of curiosity, fear, or even disdain.
By leaving the right side of the composition largely empty, except for two figures in the mid-ground, Milan pulls us into the painting’s cavernous space. The farther of the two, a shirtless man in his underpants bends over, adjusting his striped knee socks, while the other, in a red jacket and white pants, is facing the viewer from the right edge of the picture, snapping his fingers and dancing.
Caught between the gaze of men on the extreme left and right, we become self-conscious about who we are — just as we do in Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1863). Both paintings ask: who are we, and what are we doing here? In Milan’s work, more specifically, why have you come to a gay nightclub?
It is through the lens of this question that we must see the figures in Milan’s “Pulse.” They are dancing, writhing, and bending backwards – the rhythmic chaos of pleasure before a single gunman kills and maims more than 100 people. And, as we know, there is nothing we can do (or have done) about murderous, machine-efficient rage.
So the question of who we are extends beyond the picture frame and the moment it depicts, which is one of the durable strengths of “Pulse.” By implicating our presence before the moment of violence, the work asks us where we stand on issues of tolerance, empathy, belief, and access to automatic weapons. Should the right to bear arms outweigh the pursuit of happiness – both of which are guaranteed by the Constitution of The United States?
In his mixed-media work, “In Euphoria, we find two Kung Fu Warriors fumbling towards a reconciliation” (2019), Milan goes in a completely different direction, and evokes an alternative world. What is this made-up place Milan calls “Euphoria?” What is the dance that the two men are engaged in?
Made of collaged parts and strokes of blue paint, the naked man on the right is simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable, while the one on the left seems lost in thought. Is the man on the right in a kung fu pose? What is the man on the left doing? It is this gap, this incongruity, that I find captivating.
I don’t need to know what is going on because it would make whatever the men are doing fit together. Questions that don’t have easy answers push you to look closely, and more than once. Why does the pose of the man on the right remind me of a bird? What are the rectangles of vertical blue bands floating among the trees meant to dignify? Are they visual glitches on a computer screen?
“I can’t carry you, you are going to make me fall…” (2019), a mixed-media work on red hand-dyed paper, seems like a scene from a fairytale whose plot is no longer remembered. The longer I looked at these tough, bold, challenging works the more I became convinced that Milan is making art that is urgent and tough and shot through with vulnerability. One could say it is about a world of gay assignation, but I think that would be too limiting. It is that but it is more than that.
During the past decade, we have seen the recovery of neglected or overlooked Black artists (Charles White, Ed Clark and Al Loving) as well as the championing of Black figurative artists (Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Toyin Ojih Odutola) and Black sculptors (Martin Puryear, Kevin Beasley, Joyce Scott, and Bettye Saar), I think this is an important, great, and wonderful development. Which is perhaps why this question surprised me when it came unbidden: Are the museums largely awarding exhibitions to heteronormative Black artists? What about gay Black artists who make their sexual orientation part of their subject matter? In the name of diversity — which public institutions are claiming to practice — might these institutions not take the range of sexual experience into account? If they are going to use the word “diversity” in their publicity, might they not try and live up to their claims?
Wardell Milan: Parisian Landscapes, Blue Zenith continues at David Nolan (527 West 29th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 14.