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The Secrets Sharer

Trying to Decipher The Enigmatic Figures in Jackie Milad's Work

LIVING HAND TO MOUTH: Milad's "Couples Whistling #3."

By Kate Noonan | Posted 6/4/2008

Jackie Milad: Just Between Us

At Paperwork Gallery through June 24

Rendered in a crude and childlike manner, Jackie Milad's explicit works on paper are definitely not for kids. In "Just Between Us," Milad presents an enigmatic and unsettling look at our solitary lives and their occasional collisions with others. With simple and mostly small-scale line drawings Milad raises a number of issues about sexuality, fetish, communication, and death.

She appropriates the curious but sometimes clumsy hand of a fantasizing adolescent, innocent enough to impart a certain uninformed gender ambiguity, but mature enough to ruminate on a number of imaginative intimate situations. Through translucent layers of gouache, you see the artist's process: fingers and tongues redrawn, narratives altered and rewritten.

The ambiguous figures that populate Milad's drawings are first introduced in a series of 36 three-by-four-inch "Test Portraits." Here, she introduces a strange cast of characters, whose bald heads and sometimes contradictory anatomies make them difficult to identify by age or gender, challenging the very notion of portraiture itself. Hairless, lipless, and expressionless subjects are grouped into squares of four and mounted three across and three down. The effect, like the bulk of Milad's work, is both beautiful and disturbing: a crowd of catatonic faces, some decorated in Spanish insults, others lightly painted with touches of color, and others still, staring in a stark, elementary profile. Although the heads are displayed en masse, each of the subjects, like those appearing throughout Milad's drawings, is decidedly alone.

In the 18 line drawings of the "Dead/Asleep Project" Milad returns to her lonely and obscure figures, who are now splayed out into a number of quizzical positions. Here the figures rest in a state of limbo between ecstasy, slumber, and death. Wide-eyed but lifeless figures recline on a white background, while opossums feign death in neighboring pieces. Interestingly, Milad's animals, as seen in her depiction of a ram, opossum, and snake, possess a stronger and more fully developed identity than any of her human subjects.

Milad offers pairs rendered as lonely as their single counterparts in "Couples Whistling 1-4." Breasted but bearded figures interact with fanged and malformed partners, staring with unfeeling and semiconscious gazes. You wonder if the figures are aware of their actions, as they insert their fingers into each other's mouths to "whistle." The whole scene is a contradiction: a couple who appears completely unaware of each other's existence interacting in a form of primitive communication.

Considering herself part artist and part anthropologist, Milad incorporates elements of her recent fieldwork in a few of the exhibition's later pieces. In the large installation "Chinga Tu Madre: Proyecta Chifla" and the smaller series of drawings "Solo Whistling 1-3" Milad documents whistling techniques used by men throughout western Mexico. Here, she not only looks at a popular form of communication within a specific culture but also translates anthropological field notes through her own visual vocabulary. Fingers hook into mouths and vulgar Spanish phrases pepper her roughly cut and multilayered thin paper surfaces in "Chinga Tu Madre: Proyecta Chifla." Even here, in these artifacts of communication, Milad's subjects--now reduced to noses, mouths, and fingers--become isolated, alienating their viewers with a message lost in translation.

Milad's works are so elegantly simple with their thin winding lines and masses of clean white surface that it's easy to overlook their lascivious and strangely explicit content. In "Golden Positions," a series of three small drawings, Milad explores the possibilities of line, but here she adds color with flattened areas of gold paint marker and shades of pink gouache. As the central figures--donning knee-high socks, long underwear, and flip-flop sandals--contort into a number of uncomfortable poses, they are penetrated by a curlicue of golden lines emanating from languidly dripping breastlike forms. These acts beg for a response, yet the dead eyes and expressionless faces of the subjects create an impression not only of indifference but also unawareness, causing you to question the nature of the scenes entirely: Is this an actual interaction or a private fantasy conjured up in a solitary mind? Much of Just Between Us makes you feel like you are intruding into someone else's libidinous daydream. By peering in, we become privy to a secret, an uncomfortable and accidental partner.

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