Using her own visual vocabulary, Jackie Milad upends conventional conceptions of identity politics
By Bret McCabe
Jul 27, 2016 at 3:00 AM
Jackie Milad chases something personal in the 12 mixed-media-on-paper pieces in her solo exhibition, "Pyramids Fall Too," at Phoebe Projects. The intensity of that pursuit hits the eyes immediately upon entering the gallery. Black, the absence of visible light, dominates her compositions. The chief color is a glossy gold. The pyramid shape is the main visual motif. Black, gold, pyramids—even before reading Milad's accompanying statement about this work navigating a visual iconography associated with her Egyptian-Honduran heritage, you suspect she's exploring historical materialism's knotty tendrils. What usually builds pyramids and mines gold throughout history? Exploited labor of some kind. What Milad does with that emotional and intellectual association is quietly explosive. "Pyramids Fall Too" showcases an artist using her own visual vocabulary as a critical exploration of the self.
And she's not seeking answers necessarily; the work suggests she's dissatisfied with the questions that typically arise around subjects such as ethnicity, gender, and identity. "Pyramids" is Milad's first solo show in Baltimore since 2008, and her hand is immediately recognizable in the works to anybody familiar with her works on paper: Her compositions favor a spacious, loose arrangement of recurring visual ideas. Her lines are definitive without needing to be architectural-drawing-precise, and she uses those lines to realize forms, creatures, and ideas that exist only in the imagination. And she's utterly unafraid of negative space's airy comfort. Even the disembodied mouth, a motif—along with other disembodied, seemingly genderless body parts—that runs through her vocabulary appears here.
What's different with the work in "Pyramids" is that her negative space is frequently an imposing black void instead of soothing whitespace. Her lines reluctantly trace realistic forms, like a pyramid, that could correspond to objects IRL. The mouth now looks like it is having a gender written on it by other forms in her compositions. And the combination of these developments introduces an unsettled tension to her vocabulary. There's a serious attitude rippling just below the surface of many of these pieces.
Consider one untitled piece, what at first glance appears to be a framed 24-by-32-inch slab of matte black with an oblique isosceles triangle slanting down the ride side, as if a lighthouse had been reduced to an infinitely hot and dense dot planted just above the midpoint of the page, beaming a cone of gold heat toward the lower right corner. Look at this composition for just a few blinks longer and the eyes, as if adjusting to walking through the woods at midnight, notice that this golden triangle—geometric pun intended—is one side of a pyramid Milad renders in black. A "golden triangle" contains a mathematical relationship that artists have often used for its supposed aesthetically pleasing proportions; Milad here turns an actual golden triangle into a troubling presence, the kind of image that suggests there's something much darker lurking.
This idea that there's more to know about what you think you see appears in a few other compositions. 'Unharmed' at first looks like an arrangement of seven pyramids rendered in gold lines on black paper: a large one occupying the middle of the page and six smaller ones floating around it. But there's some other stuff going on with the images. A black smudge of some kind has sullied the base of the largest pyramid, and some strange bit of gold-line hatching is going on at one of its vertices. And, oh yeah: it looks like there was once a triangle that occupied a majority of the composition at one point, but it's now faded and worn away, like the memory of a sign painted on the side of a building in the 1940s. We know it was something at one point, we just can't make out what. The knee-jerk reaction is to wonder: What, exactly, has escaped harm here?
That the uncertainty of that question arises visually is what's so slyly potent about Milad's work here. Issues of identity—as it is culturally, politically, and psychologically discussed in late capitalist America of the past 50 years—have always coursed through Milad's work: what makes a person part of a particular group? Milad's artwork from the mid-2000s on often appears to wonder if what defines us is written on the body: is it in the features on the faces, such as a mouth, a bodily opening she turned to for her 2010 "Inside Mouth" exhibition at Flashpoint in Washington, D.C. Perhaps identity is partially defined with how we choose or choose not to adorn and dress ourselves, as in the patterns and textures that began appearing with the at-times androgynous torsos she used in her work, where overlapping series of curves and lines suggested plumage, draped fabrics, and other luxuriant coverings.
The pyramid leitmotif in her recent work here feels indebted to Milad's Egyptian and Honduran background; ancient cultures in both regions erected pyramids. Visually tweaking, erasing, camouflaging, obliterating, and remixing that pyramid shape reads like the artist pointing out that living in a country/on a planet where identity—ethnic, racial, gender, etc.—is fundamental for the organizing power structure to define who you are, you can feel a little unmoored if the available boxes don't always seem like the right fit. Feeling kinda/sorta part of each parent's identity marker but not a whole anything as conventionally defined can feel like not having an identity at all. And when you're some other Other, conventional identity politics not only doesn't always know how to handle that but sometimes even wants you to choose a team. Be this or be that. Be what we think you look like. Be what we think we know about where your people came from. Be that something we assume we already know.
Science informs us that our genotypes contain the genetic information of an individual, but what's expressed as our phenotype is what people see. Biology, of course, is not destiny, and in a few of the works in "Pyramids Fall Too" Milad treats the pyramid form as a visual expression of identity that is, perhaps, no longer sufficient for communicating what it once did. In pieces such as 'They Are Pyramids,' 'Rebuilt Site,' and 'Pharonic Open' Milad's pyramid forms are beginning to be overshadowed by other elements. Gold curves suggest a feathery exterior. A pyramid's matte black face melts into a billowing cloud. Gold-line loops interlock to become stretches of gold chain. These visual developments aren't tacked extras to the pyramid forms, like adding a bathroom to a house. Milad's visual flourishes are indications of the pyramids becoming something else. And if the creation of an accurate self-identity means demolishing the historical conventions represented by the pyramids in the process, well, let them come down.