America. God bless you if it’s good for you – The Brooklyn Rail
The Bronx Museum of the Arts
June 23 – October 24, 2021
Magnolias are one of the two plant referents of “Strange Fruit”, Abel Meeropol’s 1937 anti-lynching protest ballad in which the summer air, reminiscent of magnolias, is crossed by the acrid smell of black bodies on fire, an all too common phenomenon. in the post-Reconstruction South era. They are also the most common deciduous tree species in North America. The magnolia saucer features flowers the size of a hand, often pink and white, before blossoming, a separation that spells out its condition of being both flower and tree.
Wardell Milan: America. God bless you if it’s good for you also holds within a unified structure, two incongruous ways of being in the world. In paintings, sculptures, performances and works on paper, the vast multivalence of black and queer beauty is depicted alongside, even in the same frame, the banality of white supremacist evil.
Long rooted in collage, Milan’s mixed media practice deals with the tedious fabrication of subjects and spaces that envision the awe-inspiring beauty of a complex subjectivity distorted from the diverse and multiple effects of the gaze of others. In the settings of Milan, the kitchens, prison yards, beaches and fields of color become a backdrop that releases the private desires that we carry wherever we go, but which we refrain from expressing out of particular fears. .
The problem with this repression, as we inevitably see in the performance, is both that of desire and of its expression. In “The Balcony”, a series of eight prints in 2019, a character fulfills his desire by donning a luchador mask and covering another, while another in a hood and Ku Klux Klan robes is voiced by two men. black. These fleshly desires extend beyond sexual fulfillment to the ill-formed banality of white supremacists at home in Timmerman’s Kitchen, New Canaan, CT (2020). In 4 warrior women sunbathing (2021), Black women, surprisingly made up of thin lines, are torn in an entirely different kind of tension that telegraphs bodily strength and stability as they are released from a presumptive gaze. Through these private imaginaries the fleshy imperfections of the bodies are exposed, but in one context the bodily peculiarities seem to empower, while in others they become revolting. “A safe space,” Milan reminds us, is highly contingent.
“Safe space” is nevertheless the term that Milan gives to the architectural space within its frames, whose clearly demarcated but undulating floors have a strange spatiality in their destabilization of normative figure-ground relations, reminding us that the way which we look at and what we see is in fact linked to the subjectivity of perception. The space between the figures is also unusual, either so close that it shares a corporeality, or unattainable but still present in the frame, as if Milan had taken back Fred Moten’s “consent not to be one single being”. Faced with this refutation of singularity, Milan offers dynamic, almost endless ways of being a being.
In works populated by KKK clothing, genitals, barbed wire and other signifiers of conflicts and confluences of violence and white supremacist desire, it is tempting to see the flower contest as an abstract respite. such a difficult job to watch. Milan’s pictorial style, honed in his last solo show at David Nolan in 2019, lists a range of branding practices that push the boundaries of what painting can do. In the series “Knights of the white camellia” (2019-21) (the camellia, spelled with two I‘s, is another flowering tree), a single flower characterized by a complex figure / ground relationship that springs from the center of a monochromatic field. The oil, charcoal, graphite and porcelain pencil form an impregnated crescendo, the paint casting a shadow so pronounced that the cast shadows themselves become substantial strokes.
“The five clues on a tortured body” (2021), a series of performances that accompanies the show, takes place in a round chapel-like room adjacent to the exhibition. Developed by Milan with performer Zachary Tye Richardson and sculptor Billy Ray Morgan, each act mobilizes in 3D a marginalized subject staged elsewhere in a work on paper from the show. Each explores both the social construction of the subject’s identity and the intimate valences of the performers’ relationship with him. By mixing language and music with bodies that react to each other in passionate entanglements that trace the outlines of generative dyads – intimacy and violence, masculinity and femininity, power and the gift of its downfall – the series gives shape both physical and kinetic to the inability to disarticulate these binaries from each other, or from the experience of being complex subjects with complex subjectivities.
Right from the main entrance to the museum, an off-white object can be seen by those with good distance vision through one of the exhibition doors. Spencer (2020), a bust of a Klan figure, has a pronounced nose and concave chest, and wears a cone so large that it covers the head up to the eyes and leans heavily on the ears. Although the figure remains blind to the scenes which surround it, and although the mottled surface is marked by the impressions of the fingers which gave it form, its mere presence still telegraphs a quiet violence not appeased by the knowledge that it is. 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 elicit powerfully affective responses to such a figure, again introducing a note of ambivalent unease into the space. Resting on a poplar plinth (the other flowering tree in “Fruit stranger”) inlaid with a padouk cross (a flowering tree endemic to West Africa), the character is not only a watchman, but also a witness, and in its two lambrequins, is supported only by the purposeful structure on which it rests.
Hilton Als recently wrote that he has long been rather drawn to artists who have described reality “as a series of realities that encompassed so much, including ideas about home, family, new and old. Strange America, and what it meant to do the work that they were doing. Milan responds to this call in a way that takes into account the deep and subjective contingencies of our way of seeing and thinking. This is a clue not of subjectivity or that Als laughs at “empirical realities”, but of perception, which teaches both through narrative and form how to see a little better too.