On Wednesday night (Sept 25), I attended a lecture from Wardell Milan, Lesley’s first visiting artist for the Fall semester. Milan’s work has been showcased by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum (both in New York), as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, among other prestigious venues. Never having attended an artist’s lecture, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this event far exceeded my expectations.
The festivities began with pizza outside U-Hall’s lower-level screening room (as art – and pretty much anything else – may be difficult to appreciate on an empty stomach), which was followed by the main event at 6 pm. LA+D’s new dean, Amy Green Deines introduced Marissa Gonzalez to provide opening remarks on Milan: Gonzalez is Photography major in her senior year at Lesley. Her work employs similar subject matter to Milan’s; she draws inspiration from being biracial and the experiences – both positive and negative – that come with it. But this common ground isn’t the only thing that makes Milan’s work so compelling for her.
When I had an opportunity to talk with Gonzalez, and I asked what else drew her to Milan’s work. She told me that she was drawn to the vibrant colors he uses in his dioramas, as well as the way certain objects and colors – particularly blue – place symbolism on heavy, sometimes controversial, issues. In this way, the viewer is forced to confront Milan’s work instead of just looking at it. Gonzalez also had the honor of having her work critiqued by Milan himself; she told me it was “extremely validating to get the perspective of another person of color” (and she found it refreshing that she didn’t have to explain that the earth-tone paper is used to represent skin color). As for post-graduation plans (“the scary question”), she aspires to work in a museum, even if that means hanging visitors’ coats. But the “dream job”, she says, is becoming a museum curator.
Like Gonzalez, Milan incorporates his own racial identity into the body of his work. But he also finds inspiration in the ideas of sexual orientation and gender. Milan’s work, though photographically based, employs multiple dimensions and media, most prominent in his renowned dioramas. These pieces are never presented as three-dimensional objects, but as photographs. According to Milan, this method of presentation provides a more thought-provoking and interactive experience. The most impactful of these for me is called “I’m Trying to Keep My Faith…” This piece is also one of his larger creations, measuring nearly five by nine feet, and taking nearly four months to complete. It abounds with photographic figures and three-dimensional accents (including a circle of Skittles). But as abstract as it appears, every element is placed deliberately, carefully, screaming for social change. The aforementioned Skittles are an homage to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by Florida police in 2012. The image of Native Americans represents opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which made headlines in 2016. The inclusion of female bodybuilders challenges typical gender norms. These women reappear more prominently in a diorama entitled “Miss Floral Pageant”. Milan said of these pieces: “I enjoy creating those small little worlds only I can exist in.”
Clearly, Milan’s work employs a variety of layers in both dimensions, and his presentation did not fall short of this aspect. Before Milan introduced any of his work, the audience was treated to Miles Davis’ 1959 classic jazz song, “Kind of Blue,” which Milan calls “hypnotic,” “meditative,” “bittersweet,” and “devastating” all at once. The artist’s slideshow was colored with photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer renowned for his candid photos of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as a YouTube video of the Satin Bowerbird’s courtship ritual. As random as it seemed, this video had a well-earned position in the presentation; the various blue objects collected by the bird have a visible influence in pieces like “Two Warriors Looking for Euphoria.” The highlight of his presentation came with a clip of Nas’ “Cops Shot the Kid”, followed by Milan reciting a heartbreaking list of staggering length, naming African-Americans killed by police, the victims ranging in age from twelve years-old to fifty-eight.
Identifying as a gay black man himself, it is no wonder that such figures as Mapplethorpe and such events as police brutality have had an immense impact on Milan’s work. As a straight white male, I am unable to view these issues with the same lens as Milan, but their prevalence in society, especially at present, is enough to leave a mark on anyone, regardless of identity or orientation. Movements like “#MeToo” and “Black Lives Matter,” as well as laws passed favoring the LGBTQ+ community, create the illusion that society is progressing. One look at Milan’s portfolio and you’ll realize just how much work we’ve left to do.