Wardell Milan: Amerika. God Bless You If It’s Good To You
On ViewThe Bronx Museum Of The Arts
June 23 – October 24, 2021
Magnolias are one of two vegetal referents in “Strange Fruit,” the 1937 anti-lynching protest ballad by Abel Meeropol in which the summer air, redolent of magnolias, is cut through with the acrid smell of burning Black bodies, an all too common phenomenon in the post-Reconstruction era South. They are also the most common species of deciduous flowering tree in North America. The saucer magnolia arrays hand-sized, often pink and white blossoms before leafing out, a separation that enunciates its condition of being at once flower and tree.
Wardell Milan: Amerika. God Bless You If It’s Good To You also holds within one unified structure, two incongruent ways of being in the world. In paintings, sculpture, performance, and works on paper, the capacious multivalence of Black and queer beauty is represented next to, even within the same frame as, the banality of white supremacist evil.
Long grounded in collage, Milan’s mixed-media practice traffics in the fastidious fabrication of subjects and spaces that envisage the awesome beauty of complex subjectivity denatured from the various and multiple effects of the gaze of others. Within Milan’s frames, kitchens, prison yards, beaches, and color fields become a backdrop that unleashes the private desires we carry wherever we go, but which we refrain from expressing out of particularized kinds of fear.
The problem of this repression, as becomes unavoidably clear in the show, is one of both desire, and its expression. In “The Balcony,” a 2019 series of eight etchings, one figure fulfills his desire by donning a luchador mask and topping another, while another in Ku Klux Klan hood and robes is double teamed by two Black men. These flesh-bound desires extend beyond sexual fulfillment to the malformed mundanity of white supremacists at home in The Timmerman’s Kitchen, New Canaan, CT (2020). In 4 Female Warriors Sunbathing (2021), Black women, stunningly constituted in fine lines are riven in a wholly different kind of tension that telegraphs a corporeal strength and stability as they are freed from a presumptive gaze. Across these private imaginaries, the fleshy imperfections of bodies are on display, but in one context corporeal particularities seem empowering, while in others they become revolting. “Safe space,” Milan reminds us, is highly contingent.
“Safe space” is nevertheless the term Milan gives to the architectural space within his frames, whose clearly delineated yet undulant floors queer spatiality in their destabilization of normative figure-ground relationships, reminding us that how one looks and what one sees is indeed connected to the subjectivity of perception. The space between figures is also unusual, either so close as to share a corporeality, or unreachably far yet still present within the frame, as though Milan has taken up Fred Moten’s “consent not to be a single being.” Given that refutation of singularity, Milan suggests dynamic, almost infinite ways of being a being.
In works populated by KKK garb, genitalia, barbed wire, and other signifiers of the conflicts and confluences of the white supremacist violence and desire, it is tempting either to see the concurrence of flowers as an abstract respite from work that challenging to look at. Milan’s painterly style, sharpened through his last solo show at David Nolan in 2019, indexes a range of mark-making practices that push the limits of what paint can do. In the series “Knights of the White Camelia” (2019–21) (the camellia, spelled with two l’s, is another flowering tree), a single bloom characterized by a complex figure/ground relationship sprouts from the center of a monochromatic field. Oil, charcoal, graphite, and china pencil build to an impastoed crescendo, the paint throwing a shadow so pronounced that the shadows cast become substantive strokes themselves.
“The Five Indices On A Tortured Body” (2021), a performance series that accompanies the show, is performed in a round, chapel-like room that adjoins the exhibition. Developed by Milan with the performance artist Zachary Tye Richardson and the sculptor Billy Ray Morgan, each act mobilizes in 3D a marginalized subject staged elsewhere in a work on paper in the show. Each explores both the social construction of that subject’s identity and the intimate valences of the performers’ relationship to it. Through the admixture of language and music with bodies that react to one another in impassioned entwinings that trace the contours of generative dyads—intimacy and violence, masculinity and femininity, power and the gift of its forfeiture—the series gives both physical and kinetic form to the impossibility of disarticulating those binaries from one another, or from the experience of being complex subjects with complex subjectivities.
From the main entrance to the museum, an off-white object can be glimpsed by those with good distance vision through one of the doors to the exhibition. Spencer (2020), a bust of a Klan figure, has a pronounced nose and concave chest, and wears a cone so large it covers the head down to the eyes and comes to rest heavily on the ears. Though the figure remains blind to the scenes that surround it, and though the mottled surface is marked by impressions from the fingers that have given it form, its simple presence still telegraphs a quiet violence unassuaged by the knowledge that this is simply a plaster sculpture, both formed and blinded by Black queer hands. This semblance of white supremacy, blind and unfinished, is nevertheless enough to call up the powerfully affective responses to such a figure, introducing yet another note of ambivalent unease in the space. Resting on a plinth of poplar (the other flowering tree in “Strange Fruit”) inlaid with crosses of padauk (a flowering tree endemic to West Africa) the figure is not only surveillant, but also a witness, and in both its valances, is held up only by the resolute structure on which it rests.
Hilton Als recently wrote that he has long been drawn instead to artists who depicted reality “as a series of realities that encompassed so much, including ideas about home, family, the new and old weird America, and what it meant to do the work that they were doing.” Milan answers this call in a way that accounts for the profound, subjective contingencies of how we see, and what we think. His is an index not of subjectivity or what Als derides as “empirical realities,” but of perception, which teaches both through narrative and through form, how to see a little better, too.