On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co.
April 28–June 3, 2023
Walking through Wardell Milan’s new show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., I felt among his fleeting figures. In his exhibit, Bluets & 2 Years of Magical Thinking, the collages, sculptures, and paintings produce an intimate atmosphere. The audience forms a loose communion as they wander the three large rooms of the gallery, apprehending his vast paintings upon entrance. Erotic and violent, Milan’s exhibition deserves a place in a greater continuum of queer visual cosmologies. Agony and ecstasy become nested concepts, generating a sensuous environment that breaches normative codes of materiality.
Sensuality is one way to begin considering Milan’s multimedia work. In the past, Milan has referenced iconic gay photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus. For instance, at the Fraenkel Gallery in 2019 Milan presented several reconstructed photographs from Mapplethorpe’s Black Book (1986), and he continues to invoke Mapplethorpe’s subjects at Sikkema Jenkins. Though Mapplethorpe is a crucial figure as both a photographer and a documentarian of gay life in the seventies and eighties, the Black Book is a stain on his career, comprising hypersexual and phallocentric portraits of Black men that exploited racist tropes about Black masculinity. Milan meaningfully engages this provocative body of work.
How does one render a man obliquely, rather than through a paradigm of affected dominance? In Bluets & 2 Years of Magical Thinking, Milan harnesses the softness of virility through suggestive placement. In David M. (2011), the neck is decapitated, carved smoothly open. To the right is a smattering of features—an ear, a mouth, and a nose packed tightly onto an anonymous silhouette. The origin of these individual features may have been cleaved from the outline of a picture that hangs nearby. To ponder this synecdochical face, the viewer will try (in futility) to impose connective tissue onto the collage. Contrasting with the objectified subjects of the Black Book, these cut-and-paste portraits provide an irresolvable openness that makes the viewer conscious of how imagery can be used to portray, degrade, or compliment a subject. Like Hannah Höch, whose assemblages sought to critique German culture under the Weimar Republic, Milan’s work refuses to be an outright political intervention—a tactic Hoch once called “tendentious,” and which would only serve as an easy way to reconcile the viewer’s morality.
The sculptures and paintings illuminate pathways between singular experiences and collective moments while remaining resistant to moral instruction. Milan’s figurative pieces contain coarse blurring and blending techniques akin to Francis Bacon’s harrowing portraits. Like Bacon, Milan isolates his subjects while exaggerating their extreme emotional states. Slack jawed and morose, the figures in a report from an unoccupied territory, no. 1 (2023) trawl space and time, their bodies twisting away from the viewer. One must cross the entire ground of this large painting to appreciate its balance of ambience and dread. In the foreground, a person wearing distressed, oversized jeans lays prostrate, curling their knees towards us while their torso motions away. Their face and right arm flicker, as if by glitch, and their feet dip below the frame. Milan lightly covers parts of the left arm in blue acrylic, along with the naked backs of the other anguished bodies that dissolve into the background.
Blue is a prominent character in Milan’s paintings, sometimes performing as the most striking detail of color in a sea of gray. With unoccupied territory no. 1, blue unites this otherwise disparate cast of people, and as John Yau contends, Milan’s application of the color is better understood as having a number of meanings; they may reference his roots in the South (Milan was born in Knoxville, Tennessee) and the Southern blues, or perhaps they literalize the experience of feeling blue. Blue as a skin tone also interrupts hierarchies of race that a viewer may otherwise project onto the work.1 It cuts through the temporal and spatial separation of these bodies as they agonize in varying states of impermanence—blue returns the figures back to earth.
The sculptures here, too, imbue transience within embodiment. The pockmarked, white plaster busts close their eyes or otherwise do not have them; they do not see. In Man (unknown), New York City (2022), the absent upper-half of the face emphasizes a grimacing study of the mouth, the chin chipping away, the chest cracked. These uncanny statues are remote, confrontational, and viscerally demanding, the disintegrating features signifying an insecurity of the corporeal realm.
Milan’s statues are staged throughout the main floor of the show, propelling viewers into the ethereal world of deconstructed flowers and collage in the final room. The tactful selection at Sikkema Jenkins enables us to contemplate bodily transcendence almost as a collective labor. One comes away lusting for the ties that bind—seeking pleasure through intimacy with a collective. Milan’s dismantling of the physical plane opens his audience up to such possibilities.