On ViewThe Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
January 16 – May 15, 2022
When titling her first institutional solo show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Milano Chow reflected on the role of a title as the first impression of a show. Embracing this frontline nature, she chose Prima Facie, which translates from Latin to first impression. “It’s a bit superficial,” the Los Angeles-based artist explains to Senior Curator Amy Smith-Stewart in the exhibition catalogue. Superficial though it may seem, the prima facie is at the core of Chow’s show. Her works appear simple: monochromatic, two- and three-dimensional, paper collages of ink and graphite drawings and photo-transfer figures. Yet, the show is rife with references from histories including art, architecture, film, fashion, and decorative arts. Like diving into the pages of Vitruvius’s De architectura, Chow’s representations of façades are academic and precise, even familiar. However, as with most first impressions, this familiarity melts away the longer one spends with the works. A closer inspection of the Gilded Age façades reveals disparate architectural elements, out of place objects, and slightly disproportionate figures. Prima Facie is far more than the first impression.
In Façade (Profumeria) (2021), the profile of a standing female figure is partly obscured by blinds that appear out of place and too contemporary for the architecture. Seeing just the shadow of the figure’s upper body, there is an uneasy feeling that something clandestine is occurring out of view. While also creating depth in the façade, Chow’s combination of graphite, ink, and collaged paper gives the visual illusion that the works can be opened or unfolded, as if something truly is happening behind the walls. In a nod to Magritte’s “The Empire of Light” (c. 1939–67) paintings and the Surrealist’s love of abandoning logic, the light and shadow of the windows offer no hints at whether the scene is during the day or at night, and objects appear to float freely inside the ground floor profumeria.
Prima Facie also explores an intriguing manipulation of power dynamics. In Elevations (Bed and Bath) (2021), the viewer sees the plans for a room lying flat like an unfolded box. The work seems to give the viewer the power to mentally assemble the room, yet the orientation of the walls with the ceiling lying flat in the center defies logic and forces the eye to try to flip the room to achieve order.
With every piece, the viewer has the power to observe freely, even spy on the figures, and becomes a voyeur. Constantly being looked at in each window, the occupants are afforded little privacy. Growing up in Los Angeles, Chow has always been fascinated by the way architecture is used to symbolize privacy, like metal gates and exterior walls.
Chow flips this power dynamic in Façade (Duo Figures) (2021). A large building with several windows, the work appears at first to be devoid of the objects and figures present in other pieces. Upon second glance, two figures appear, their dark outfits blending into the pitch-black rooms in which they stand. Unlike others of Chow’s subjects, these women are coyly looking into the space of the gallery. The figure on the second floor glances out the window in the direction of the other woman, who peeks out at the viewer. Nearby, the act of peeking is mirrored by the oversized vases and lamps that seem to try to catch a glimpse of the viewer from behind the curtains.
While the viewer is both watching and being watched, Chow ultimately controls what is visible and what is hidden. There are suggestions of activities occurring behind the scenes, but a complete lack of context or visual cues. Moreover, the scale at which Chow works physically forces the viewer to move closer to each piece, controlling them once more.
While much of her work is hand-drawn, Chow’s figures, which are always women, are photo-transferred from catalogues and advertising, lending an overall graphic nature. The figures touch on Chow’s interest in media and fashion photography. Preferring figures without sartorial flairs like lace or large sleeves, Chow first photoshops out any elements that don’t fit her overall vision, and then uses a photo-transfer method to print the imagery.
Her interest in fashion is further explored in the shop windows, like the aforementioned profumeria. In much the same way a pedestrian passing a shop would look in the windows, the museum visitor looks in at the goods on display in Chow’s buildings. In Façade (Fine Cuts) (2021), she has arranged an assortment of cured meats propped on the sill and hanging from a bar. The title refers both to the display of meats and to the finely cut paper the artist uses to make her work.
While all the pieces in the show have a sense of three-dimensionality, achieved from the artist’s layering of paper and use of dark shadows, Prima Facie also includes actual three-dimensional works in the form of small, freestanding vignettes mounted on boards and backed with gray book cloth. The sculptural pieces, which the artist refers to as “corners” or “rooms”, appear to be taken from dollhouses or architectural models and can collapse into flat objects. Perhaps a result of her upbringing in Los Angeles and interest in film, the works have a strong theatrical sense to them. Indeed, the frontal viewpoint and use of visual illusions throughout her work lends an overall stage-like quality. Her “corner” sculptures appear particularly akin to stage sets, as they are installed in a small, dark room and bathed in dramatic spotlights. Amplifying this theatrical nature, the walls of the room are papered with gray book cloth to match the sculptures, as if forming a cohesive film set.
While first impressions are often incorrect, Chow’s Prima Facie proves that this isn’t a bad thing, but rather an invitation to get up close to each piece and discover what’s happening behind the façade. Chow’s work is dynamic, welcoming, and layered with discordant and unexpected elements. Simple yet complex, Prima Facie requires a second look.