It could be argued that collage and photomontage are naturally suited to representing the fluid and shifting nature of identity, its multiplicity, and – to use the current term – intersectionality. Drawing from various sources and combining different media, the approach is also inherently political – decontextualizing images and forcing unexpected juxtapositions and ruptures of meaning. Perhaps for this reason, photomontage has seen a resurgence in the work of contemporary artists, Wardell Milan among them, who engage with issues of identity, gender, queerness, and race. Milan’s first West Coast exhibition, Parisian Landscapes: Blue in Green, opens at the Fraenkel Gallery January 5, with mixed-media works, drawings, paintings, and photomontages.
Milan works in a variety of media, but his more elaborate pieces, like the exuberantly colorful Early Spring, The Charming Evening, 2014, which was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography this fall as part of the exhibition Echoes: Reframing Collage, involve intricate tabletop dioramas that he builds and then photographs. “I’ve been doing the same thing since I was 10,” he says, “building cardboard scenes and dioramas. But they really don’t have a presence until they’re lit and the camera is loaded, and the image is taken,” he says. “That’s when it becomes really magical.”
“Magical” certainly describes Milan’s work. “Hallucinatory and phantasmagorical” might also be accurate. Michael Ross, 2018, for example, shows a man in profile: created out of multiple photographic images cut from books, the subject has five eyes and two ears. Two warriors looking for euphoria, 2018, whose base is a photographic print, finds two male figures on a beach daubed with blue paint. They could be a couple, or not; one of the figures gives a suspicious backward glance at the viewer. The dance party in In Rainbows, 2018, made of cut and pasted paper, charcoal, graphite, and paint, is both trippy and oddly melancholy. Six male figures, two of them embracing, are caught mid-gesture in an off-kilter red room. The central figure, a big-bellied man, wears glittery knee socks, red pumps, and little else, and each figure (aside from the couple) appears lost in a private, isolated reverie. Milan’s works recall the raw, raging paintings of Francis Bacon, on the one hand, and Diane Arbus’s beloved freaks and outsiders on the other. “I’m always interested in creating images that have this sense of inviting and repelling at the same time,” he says, “of being both beautiful and grotesque.”