PROFILE - Wardell Milan
by Diana McClure
Wardell Milan has had his own studio since the age of 4. Recognized for his artistic gifts from an early age, his parents made sure he had space to explore creativity within the walls of their East Tennessee home. Pivotal moments with advisors in high school and college turned Milan’s singular attention toward art at age 15 and photography at age 19. However, it wasn’t until graduate school at Yale University (MFA 2004) that Milan encountered traditional institutional restrictions on medium that he would nevertheless transcend. As an MFA candidate in photography Milan’s parallel development in drawing, carried over from childhood, had to remain on the periphery. Instead, collage and three-dimensional dioramas became the boundary blurring agents of Milan’s particular interpretation of photography.
A combination of visual imprints from watching cartoons and muscle builders on television as a child, receiving a Pentax camera at an early age, Saturday morning art classes, and match box cars embedded in dioramas, all came alive in Milan’s home studio and are still central to his artistic inquiry today. Beauty and glamour, violence and mortality, and public figures viewed as immortal and superhuman, provide the context for his work. The fictions that spectators engage with when they see beauty, intelligence or athletic prowess as incapable of destruction, and how these stories can come together on paper or in dioramas, drive his practice.
In unplanned coincidences Milan’s interests have been fueled by lived experience through stints at fashion heavy Box Studios, BlackBook Magazine and Details in their photography/digital imaging departments prior to and after graduate school. In these environments the fiction of superhuman immortality played out in, “Retouchers who worked and created these pages who would then be upset that they didn’t look like them,” Milan says. The disparity between fiction and reality, building and destroying, in lived life also revealed itself in Milan’s experiences living in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn before Yale and New Haven, Connecticut while attending Yale. “It was an eye opener seeing desperation and determination, deterioration next to reclamation.”
Viewed together, these formative years seemed to lay the groundwork for Milan’s “perfect moment” – his residency in 2007 at The Studio Museum in Harlem. However, the arrival at this destination included some humorous yet challenging twists and turns. After reading an article in 2002 about SMH residency artists, Milan spent weeks innocently cold-calling Thelma Golden, Chief Curator of SMH, based on a referral. She picked up once. Ultimately, it ended up taking 3 applications to the residency, post grad school, and participation in P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center’s 2005 Greater New York exhibition, to finally earn his spot. “The Residency was everything I wanted grad school to be. Everyone was really invested in the work.” It was such a provocative and evolutionary dialogue that Milan and his two fellow residency artists secured a huge gallery space studio together, in Chelsea, from 2007-2009; and, participated in, Blur (2007), a group exhibition at Arndt & Partner in Berlin that was a revision of their SMH residency show, Midnight’s Daydream.
Represented by New York gallery Taxter & Spengemann since 2005, Milan has created several bodies of work that explore visual ideas of masculinity and femininity and their relationship to beauty, intelligence and athletic prowess. “The visual idea of what manhood is is such a heightened visual representation. A lot of times the visual doesn’t match up, whether it’s steroids or retouching. ” To this point, Milan started work on a boxing collage series, Battle Royale, while at the Studio Museum . The series explored the mindset it takes to believe one is indestructible, even if that’s false; and, an interesting twist on Royale’s inspiration, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In an effort to get inside this work and the association of manhood with physicality, Milan began training as a boxer under a female coach who encouraged him to train for the Golden Gloves. Realizing that the time commitment and no health insurance were negatives, Milan opted out and went back to his studio practice full-time. Prior to this Milan created a series of pencil drawings called Desire and the Black Masseur, inspired by a Tennessee Williams’ short story and featured in PS1’s Greater New York show. Milan’s last solo exhibition in 2008 at Taxter & Spengemann, Power!, Testosterone! They looked ferocious with heavy sexual overtones, featured work from the series The Smooth Girls and The Fights, which explore the defacement and destruction of beauty and glamour through the use of Black girly magazines and drawings of boxers, violence and masculinity.
Milan has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad and is in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Montclair Art Museum. In 2009 he will have his first solo museum show at the Studio Museum, which will feature pencil drawings of Harlem completed throughout the year of 2009, a departure from his usual oeuvre. He will also have a solo show in 2009 at Taxter & Spengemann entitled, Landscapes, Romance, Recession, and Rottenness – another take on the defacement of images of women. However this time, through a gentle beautification via collage that pairs natural landscapes with nude white female supermodels appropriated from photographer Palo Rovesi’s book, Nudi .