At C. Grimaldis Gallery, two solo exhibitions by Baltimore-based artists Nora Sturges and Jackie Milad repurpose cultural iconographies.
Nora Sturges, LevitationNora Sturges, “Good Government” (image courtesy of the artist)
No painting in Nora Sturges’ solo show Levitation exceeds 10 inches in width. But the environment she crafts in gouache, oil, and tempera paint within each panel feels infinitely more cavernous than its narrow window, opening to a phantasmagoric universe where the fabric of space appears to be quite literally a delicate tissue folding into itself at one moment and unfurling at another. Sometimes this space begins to solidify into almost-tangible yet still spectral scenes that are at once cramped and porous. Imagine if, somehow, an old city got caught in a massive spiderweb, or if a German Expressionist set designer reconstructed a Biblical scene painted by Giotto.
Late medieval Italian frescoes are, in fact, the primary source of inspiration for Sturges’ paintings. “Good Government” appears to be a nod to one half of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s iconic and unusually secular fresco cycle “Allegory of Good and Bad Government.” But here, Sturges omits good government’s foil, perhaps because her paintings are more concerned with myth than reality. If not for the title, I might miss the connection to the original fresco—although the limp, mint-green shape that reclines at the bottom of the panel just begins to resemble a flipped and limbless version of Lorenzetti’s personification of Peace. But nothing here is possible to pin down. The ambiguity is particularly fitting in this piece, considering that in life, good government is far from our reach and increasingly difficult to recognize.
The works in Levitation speak the same language as their proto-Renaissance inspiration: laboriously rendered details, flatly constructed spaces that hint at perspective, a generous array of color. But the sentences that language forms, as articulated by Sturges, are something else entirely. Sturges’ work reads more like ambling poetry than the ceremonious narrative manner of late medieval painting. “In the Night Garden” looks like a leaf curling around a cocoon in the middle of a fog, but more vividly, it renders the dampness felt in the air just before dawn. “Hounds” plays up the beauty of deterioration through a veil of gritty blue-gray that covers most of the panel, interrupting the image like an unrestored fresco that has chipped away from its surface.
Nora Sturges, “Beards”
In “Beards,” a hodgepodge of not-quite-identifiable parts—maybe wisps of delicate Botticellian hair, terra cotta arches, a fold in a cloak, a distant mountain range—are sandwiched together like buildings in a cityscape. At the same time, the mass appears bodily, like ragtag travelers marching in line across fissured, lavender-hued cliffs. This wavering between what looks like skeletal figures one minute and architectural fragments the next is a strength in Sturges’ way of abstraction. By forming irresolute spatial relationships, Sturges toys with the viewer’s impulse to see everything as an object. It’s an energizing sort of visual agitation.
Levitation marks a kind of clairvoyant return to a pivotal moment in the evolution of painting. I think about what it means to make art when the world is in collapse, rushing history to its twilight hour, and when the desire to shape the future feels like a vestigial impulse. The act of parsing through art history through artmaking carries more weight now when our own footprint is set to be short-lived. If there’s little time to move forward, we might as well turn around and bring what we’ve learned with us.
Jackie Milad, Chaos Comes and GoesLike Sturges, Jackie Milad dissects and reconfigures fragments of cultural artifacts, but the sources she mines and the way she puts them together couldn’t be more different. Milad’s mixed-media pieces—turbulent storms of collage, paint, glitter, marker, tape, and flashe on canvas and paper—draw not from a singular art historical epoch, but a range of material including ancient Egyptian imagery, pop cultural proverbs, multilingualism, and the history of her own studio practice.
The larger and more elaborate pieces in Milad’s solo show, Chaos Comes and Goes, give form and affirmation to the chaos of processing an oversaturated world. Tracing her wild compositions reminds me of the daily flickering of my attention span as I parse through flashes of the world online. But the content of her work is more like an expansive yet considered and personal archive than the anything-and-everything network of rabbit holes that characterizes the internet. Her collages incorporate bits and pieces of old artworks to create new ones, like memories that become fragmented and recycled, altered again and again with each recollection.
Milad, who is of Egyptian and Honduran heritage, threads Arabic and Spanish text into her frenzied compositions. In “Egyptian Lady” beneath a large gold chain (one of the artist’s recurring motifs): “Te da miedo que no necesito tu cultura.” In English, “You’re scared that I don’t need your culture.” By playing with the seemingly disparate elements that go into identity, Milad illuminates the agency we have over culture, how we create our own as individuals and as communities. Throughout Chaos, the repetition of culturally entrenched images reflects the patterns between categories that dissolve rather than enforce them—like the pyramids, which not only represent architectural feats of both ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, but also appear on United States currency.
And for Milad, it seems, the pyramids are no more a part of her cultural identity than contemporary pop culture: Nestled into “Inside Outside Pyramids” among a maze of eyes, snakes, wonky pyramids, and boobs (a word I use deliberately since these don’t have the anatomical specificity to be called “breasts” nor the hypersexualization for “tits”) are lines from “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath and “When I See Her” by Remy Ma. And then, what could perhaps be the broken lede of a Refinery29 sex advice article written by Carl Sagan, obscured in part by overlapping collage and doodled in red marker as if taken from the back of a school notebook:
Have you ever
To get turned on by the complexity of our being is at once deeply appealing and existentially terrifying (which is sort of how most pleasurable moments are—because they are moments). It’s easy to get stuck in certain points of Milad’s work like this. But then she reels us back into the material realm, in this case using an illustrative smattering of metallic craft confetti beneath the masturbation proposition.
In repurposing her own artistic and mental archive alongside art historical iconographies and pop cultural relics, Milad gets wildly lost in the messiness of cultural identity. The result is an interpretation of history and culture less as geographically compartmentalized chronologies and more as a shifting web of entangled artifacts—a word that is malleable and expanding, encompassing both the pyramids and a familiar meme.
(L-R) “Warriors,” 2018, mixed media on paper and “Arches,” 2018, mixed media on paper
Levitation and Chaos Comes and Goes are on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through November 9. For more information, visit cgrimaldisgallery.com.