By KURT MCVEY, SEPT. 2017
“Right now, I just want to sit down and binge-watch The Golden Girls,” admits the super-busy mixed-media artist Wardell Milan over the phone from inside his Queens studio, despite previously being warned that he’s officially on the record. “I’m ready for a bit of a break. I just want to hang with Dorothy, Rose, Sophia and Blanche and eat ice cream.”
Last Wednesday (Sept. 6th), Milan unveiled his solo exhibition, PERSONA, at Jasmine Wahi and partner Rebecca Jampol’s politically conscious Project For Empty Space, an ever-expanding gallery and residency complex located within Newark, New Jersey’s Gateway terminal. The show features paintings of various styles as well as small and large-scale collage works, some of which are splendidly spliced chimaeras of earlier works by Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, especially the latter’s (arguably) fetishized figures from his 1986 [The] Black Book series. Overall, PERSONA was a worthy, if not slightly (understandably) spread-thin celebration of the conclusion of Milan’s residency program and another multifaceted win for the equally busy PES team.
Just three days later, Milan opened the group show “Haphazard Paradigm” at Re: Art Show, a new curatorial project space directed by SVA graduates, Erin Davis & Max C. Lee, located in an old Pfizer factory on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. The show, which opened on the 9th and runs till October 8th, features eleven artists, is comprised mostly of video and sculpture work dealing with race, gender, and nationality, and was co-curated by Melvin Harper.
Milan was also invited to create his first-ever, life-sized diorama for The Art Institute of Chicago’s SNAP VII, a fundraising gala taking place on September 22nd celebrating photography and its relationship to the famed institution. Hopefully Milan incorporates fellow honoree-artist and performer Juliana Huxtable (who will be joined by DJ Matt Roan)-into the large, currently unprecedented (Milan has only made dollhouse-sized dioramas up to this point) installation in some capacity.
If that weren’t enough to keep Milan away from his girl Blanche, he is also currently packaging and shipping work for Frieze London, which kicks off the first week of October. Milan will help lead art dealer David Nolan’s first foray into the contemporary arena at the London art fair, as Nolan had previously exhibited only in the Frieze (London) Masters program. Nolan, who brought Milan onto his roster in 2015, has also charged the artist with creating a solo booth of (most likely) sculptural work for The (ADAA) Art Show, going down at The Park Avenue Armory in March 2018.
Safe to say the Knoxville, Tennessee-born, Yale MFA (2004) grad has a lot on his plate. In returning to PERSONA, the solo-show at PEC, especially within the context of Milan’s workload, it’s easy to forgive the show’s perceived “lightness.” Upon deeper reflection, however, and including the luxury of speaking directly to the artist, one begins to appreciate the wealth of emotional content and social commentary swimming in the sea of negative space.
“I don’t like to walk away from it [an exhibition] understanding everything,” says Milan over the faint rustling of art handlers doing what they do in the background. “I find that type of work to be sort of closed off. In my work, I like to leave enough room for people to come to their own conclusions.”
There is something a little unsettling, a little frustrating, about PERSONA, which Milan doesn’t mind. Some of this may arise from the larger thematic nature of this particular exhibition itself, that being; what “personal” information is the artist (capable of) sharing under the larger collective identity or umbrella of the “persona.” In other words, did Wardell get lost in his own maze? Is this the point? How does one speak to something deeply personal after assuming the task of speaking through the larger yet marginalized experience of a “gay black man” in New York City?
“I look at the self through the lens of an artist,” says Milan. “I look at Arbus, for example; this white, Jewish woman who grew up in relative privilege in the Upper East Side. That visual-so much complexity there-but why does she have an affinity for the freakish? Why does she want to go out and embrace the fringes? How do those images and those relationships speak to how she struggles or deals with the interior self? I’m doing the same thing she’s doing, but not going to the real world, but looking through magazines.”
As mentioned earlier, Milan also perused through and sliced up images from Mapplethorpe’s controversial, The Black Book. These images of subtly sexualized black men are then blended with Arbus’ weird nightlife personalities, socialites and compartmentalized Central Park weirdoes, creating completely unique, gorgeously composed hybrid characters via Exacto Knife. “I’m not only a fan of their practice, but who they were as individuals, who they photographed, and why they gravitated towards these communities,” says Milan of his duel inspirations. “Perhaps he [Mapplethorpe] didn’t completely understand who he was photographing. He was already a gay man in New York in the late ‘70s and ‘80s; already the “other.” "I’m trying to explore this even more, being a black, gay man in New York myself."
Wardell is not only trying to reverse the perspective, but is also perhaps subverting (inverting) what is still, to a degree, the [white] male gaze. Wardell is partially assuming the role of Mapplethorpe’s subjects, while making a deeper commentary on the intersectional nature of identity politics. Though Mapplethorpe was consistently attacked by censors and is still criticized for fetishizing young, gay black men, cries of cultural appropriation and greater societal privilege might soak up the controversy oxygen in 2017. Where Mapplethorpe, as a product of his time, couldn’t help but create work that would “Épater la bourgeoisie,” Wardell is making a larger appeal for viewers to further contemplate the complexity of the same communities he seeks to represent.
Intersectional politics is nothing new for Project For Empty Space. Jasmine Wahi, for instance, is currently spearheading an ongoing class and seminar this fall at SVA that deals with “Intersectional Feminism” and the complex nature of cultural collateral.
“ ‘Intersectionality’ is not a monolithic ideology,” says Wahi in her course description. “At its core, it is intended to be a multivalent and flexible idea that rejects binary structures or rigid architectures at all.”
This ideology permeates each work in PERSONA; especially Milan's small “black and white” collage works, and in many ways deliberately trivializes the simplicity of the frequently used term “black bodies,” making it clear that such a distinction falls incredibly short in so many ways. The inclusion and intermixing of Arbus’ characters obliterates the binary chasm that would separate Mapplethorpe from his subjects and perhaps even the critics from the photographer’s works. Wardell is inviting everyone to dive in with the intention of approaching identity in considerably more sophisticated terms. Simultaneously, he’s speaking to the complexity of his own evolving identity.
“All these materials that may be seen as deviant, they help me discover who I am and the many layers that one has,” says Milan. “Using the source material as models, like the people Arbus met, they help to articulate the many areas of interest that exist within myself-the drawings or reference images of BDSM, or shame, or violence, or moments of orgasm or ecstasy. They help me to understand my interior self and express these fears, dreams and desires, even if it’s all a little coded.”
Any sense of “lightness,” of course, is not without a bit of darkness or gravitational heaviness. But again, binary thinking is not the best way to approach PERSONA, it would appear, or really any further programming at PES, and perhaps not even Milan’s subsequent work. There is magic in the scarcity, in the vast, splotchy gray and off-white negative spaces that seem to defy the viewer’s wish or impulse to have the artist fill it all up with anything other than their own imaginative content or misconceptions. Milan is pushing us away from the screaming, radiating poles, beyond the background and foreground, to explore the as of yet unexplored spaces, the “minor keys in life.”
“What’s on the other side?” he asks, calmly, playfully. “It’s more than duality, which I’m still very much interested in. I’m reaching into the darkness to pull out whatever light I can. I’m always oscillating between the two. Family history, pop culture, police brutality, femininity or gender politics, I want to get caught up in the gray and brown, in the muddy, unclear areas.” WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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