Jeff M. Ward
Your Immanence: Thoughts on the Artwork of Michael Milano on the Occasion of the Exhibition, fit, fold, and finish at Fernwey Gallery
Having been a partisan to the artwork of Michael Milano for many years, I find the shaped, stacked, and pressed textile artworks in his latest exhibition to be importantly, if subtlety, different from earlier output. Compared to their predecessors, these new works are decisively formed, through cut, folded, and layered canvas, into low-relief sculpture primarily displayed on the wall. Earlier works evidenced the artist’s hand less, referencing empirical processes such as experimentation and data collection. Drawings on graph paper methodically exhausted all the permutations of a range of marks and colors. Video and sound pieces featured continuous or repeated action. Other recent fabric works arose from isolating stitching and patterning techniques from quilt making. These new folded cloth works, however, appear more singular and icon-like. Ironed into semi-permanence, they suggest a degree of irreversibility. These “foldings” feature noticeably more deliberate aesthetic choices than previous work.
If the works in fit, fold, and finish at Fernwey gallery are your first experience with Milano’s work, however, the terms decisive, singular, or sculptural might not be the most obvious nomenclature. Merely pinned to the wall, their form is contingent. These cloth sandwiches have depth and weight, but the sculptural tension is of an irresolute kind, nearer to gravitational surrender than structural resistance. For all their relative boldness, the pieces are still modest, knowable, and noticeably human-made. The differences to be found in the foldings, however, are not inconsequential for the artist or these latest artworks. The distinction is revelatory to their meaning.
Agnostic to resolution, Milano’s techniques favor processes that are reversible, things that can be undone, such as forgiving fabrics and minimal fastenings. When unable to retreat, he’ll advance assiduously through all possible juxtapositions of form, for example: drawing out all the design possibilities for a set of triangles within a defined space. These processes suggest study and analysis, and the resulting objects can be seen as collections of data or archivally preserved specimens. Each individual artwork, however prepossessing, points, in part, away from itself towards a larger research activity. One imagines that his latest works were made in a similar fashion, with much investigation and exploration of possible shapes, layers, and folds. Distilled for presentation, however, Milano highlights aesthetic subtleties in a more directed fashion. It is a move that I think could be seen in the artist’s thinking before it is visible in his craft.
In 2012, Milano and I organized a group show featuring artists who made abstractions with very clear referents from everyday life. When conceived, the exhibition traced what we called a “terrestrial abstraction,” which touchingly towed the line between the intimacy of the mundane and distancing of abstraction. We found this take on abstract art provided a mix of perspective and focus that encouraged us to think about, and navigate more compassionately, the world. At the time, neither Milano nor I thought our curatorial effort had any relation to Milano’s own artwork. Considering the foldings, however, the exhibition seems influential. While he doesn’t focus on an clearly identifiable quotidian image, Milano’s new works position themselves with a similar play between remove and address by increasing their intrusion into the physical world and taking a pedagogical stance.
Most of the pieces in the Fernwey exhibition are made of large swaths of dyed canvas that has been cut, layered, folded, pressed, and tacked to the wall. They are human scale, each piece made from a human-sized yardage of fabric. Textiles of that size correlate to clothing, or bodily coverings more generally, even if the rough canvas texture suggests something more utilitarian, like coveralls or a tarp. The highly saturated color of the pieces read as both functional and meaningful. Arranged into elegant designs, including subtle shifts in color visible only upon close inspection, they are a cross between ceremonial vestments or uniformed outerwear. Made of folded piles that vary cut and uncut edges, they also reference instructional diagrams, like those that might be found in patternmaking or the manual for assembling a tent. These similarities reveal the work’s scholastic impulse.
Milano’s earlier bodies of work, while of course remaining legitimate studio expressions, can be seen as a learning process in the context of his practice heretofore. Through striving to master an impossibly full range of aesthetic possibilities, Milano learned how to cull the more singular foldings. In the measured move from a Conceptualist’s rote irrationality towards relative aesthetic audacity, the work becomes more distinctive and discerning. The works refer less to their manufacture and more towards their individuated presence. We study these pieces not to understand an artistic process but to observe a particular material occurrence.
Addressing us through their form, shape, and color, these new works arrive immanent. This is not the kind of abstraction that refers metaphorically to the divine or an unassailable truth. It’s the brand of abstraction that meets the world just enough to preserve some perspective on interpreting it. Like a pedagogue, the work uses a studied distance to try to show us something about the world. The image made in each piece—the design made when we regard them at a distance—is explained when inspected up close, where we can see how the objects are constructed. If these works are the type of abstraction that states that all we need to understand the artwork is contained in the artwork, then, the foldings suggest, all we need to understand the world is contained in the world. To understand the world, we must look closely at the world.
In this fashion, these new pieces, despite their novel qualities, are not all that different than the research-based graph paper drawings or sound pieces that cycle through combinations of notes or distillations of discrete craft skills affixed to stretched canvas. All of Milano’s work, old and new, is characterized by a close reading and thorough methodology. As a final caveat, it should be noted that my read of the foldings should not demand an unwavering teleology in understanding the work of Michael Milano. Any practice so attuned to repetition as his should not foreclose on circularity for the sake of linear convenience. What excites me about the latest iteration of his practice, which I do perceive as a real innovation, is the confidence of the finished pieces—so present in person—given ballast by a sense of consequence—a grounded awareness of their materiality. Self-assured and self-evident, the foldings seem to enjoy being on our level, and they seem eager to reveal themselves to us, teaching us what they know. “Rejoice,” these pieces seem to say, “we can come to know all we need to; carefully, we will search together.”