When I first came across Wardell Milan’s work a few years ago, it was on my computer, or perhaps on my phone. I was digging through various galleries’ sites and art-laden Instagram feeds, on which someone vigilant posted Milan’s name along with the image, so I was ultimately directed straight to the artist himself. Seeing his work on-screen, especially a screen so tiny, is world’s apart from the experience of standing before them, sinking into the depths and dimensions of color and shape—and over the past several years, his work has only grown stronger.
While his first West Coast exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery closed a couple weeks ago, In Rainbows remains on view at the gallery through March 16. From the press release: “Incorporating drawing, painting, photography and collage, Milan’s Parisian Landscapes: Blue in Green introduces the artist’s figurative works in a variety of media. In scenes of freedom and desire, conflict and violence, Milan situates fractured bodies in ambiguous spaces.”
There is the suggestion of violence intrinsic to artwork that uses cut-and-paste technique. A couple possible impressions when viewing a figure assembled out of parts is that we are seeing evidence of innate damage; or, that we are witnessing life newly given. Either way, this re/configuration is evidence of the layers of personal history we all possess.
But, as with any perception we have of something outside of ourselves, this is all speculative. For the reality is that each of us is, in a manner of speaking, assembled from parts. Throughout the course of life, we are fragmented and reformed—by our own experiences, and by the perceptions others thrust upon us, sometimes based on little to no real information. And most of the time, we hold ourselves together. What I see on the surface of Milan’s work is a beautiful humanity: vibrant, active, pulsating with life, from the brilliantly-colored works to the black-and-white, or mostly so, photo collages.
Milan was kind enough to answer some questions via email regarding his work in general, and this show.
You studied both photography and painting in college, and it seems you have always been on track to be an artist. Has photo collage always been part of your practice?
Before my studies in college, I had a great interest in collage. This technique has been a perennial part of my artistic practice. The act of cutting and dissecting images and materials—to then use these fragments to create a new form or figure has always been exciting.
How did you get interested in collage?
As an adolescent, I would build cardboard “cities” for my Matchbox Cars. I believe it was during this time of play that my interest in the act of cut-and-paste was birthed.
At what point do you decide to incorporate photographic elements? Does it happen organically as you’re working, or is there a prior intent when beginning a particular piece?
It’s all organic: responding to the work, and what the developing piece is asking/requesting from me.
I love that there’s such a wide array of references for this exhibition. Do you have recurring influences throughout all of your work, or are you constantly drawing from different cultural touchstones in each new project?
The philosophical idea of twoness and duality are recurring themes and serve as the bedrock for most of my work. Presently, blue has a strong importance and influence in each project, capitalizing on the many thematic representations associated with the color: expansiveness, inspiration, heaven, faith—as well as communicating feelings of melancholy, negativity, and sadness.
I’m also intrigued by the history of this color—including learning about the lapis lazuli mines in northeast Afghanistan, the use of the color in Renaissance paintings, and the invention of the 18th-century cyanometer.
I cannot escape the thought of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe upon seeing Music for Men—the gazes, the positioning of parts of some of the figures, the lush, verdant green. But I quickly move past this, as your work is so different. Was this painting, or Manet in general, part of the genesis of this particular work?
I wasn’t influenced by Manet’s work. When considering the composition of the painting Déjeuner sur l’herbe, I think of the photographic work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Specifically the photos “Three Women Combing Hair,” “Sunday on the Banks of the River Seine” and “Boston, United States, 1947.” I’m ALWAYS looking at Bresson’s work. Perhaps he was inspired by Manet?
Are there consistent themes throughout all your work as a whole?
Duality, sexual deviance—or what some may deem to be deviant—and femininity, questioning the idea of womanhood—Which leads me to question the notion of masculinity. Love, violence, and the melancholy.
Do you still make photographs regularly? If so, do you incorporate your own photographs into your work, or are you strictly using existing photographs that you find?
Yes, I often make photographs. I’m beginning to incorporate my own photos into the work. Similar to how I appropriate, and will use the photographic imagery of others, in my collage work, in an effort to create something new. I also plan to return to exhibiting my more “traditional” photographic work: black-and-white, unmanipulated images of the quotidian world.
What is your process like? Do you work in silence, with music, podcasts, during the day or at night, etc.? What do you listen to while you work?
During the day I listen to WNYC. Towards the end of the afternoon, when the station starts recycling the news, I’ll listen to music. And I work to music for the entire evening. I normally leave the studio around 12-12.30 a.m.
Who or what are some of your photographic influences?
Dada photography, Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, George, Bresson, George Dureau, Roy DeCarava.
A: The works of de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Chris Marker’s film La Jetée, Fellini’s complete filmography. Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine, any performance by Viola Davis. Steve McQueen (film director). All of the fashion designs by Alexander McQueen. English gardens, the writings of Albert Camus, and Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly.
Do you spend a lot of time researching to prepare to make new work? What types of things do you look at, and where do you typically search?
I love the process of research. I have the policy of letting any and all things inspire my creative process. Literature, film, people watching, a dog humping the leg of its owner—I saw this scene a couple of days ago on my block. Being a giant sponge, soaking up a ton of references, only to squeeze out what isn’t interesting or wanted. Then researching and learning all that I can on the topics I find curious and intriguing.
Do you have hopes for what the viewer experiences when viewing your work?
To be both seduced and repelled.
All artwork © Wardell Milan, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and David Nolan Gallery, New York. His work is on view now through March 16, 2019, at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.