A Closer Look Wardell Milan: The Artist at Work

The artist invites us into his New York studio.

You Belong Here, 2023
charcoal, graphite, acrylic, color pencil, pastel, oil pastel & cut-and-paste paper, 55-3/4 x 77-1/4 inches (framed) [141.6 x 196.2 cm]

In an interview in connection with his current exhibition Modern Utopia, Wardell Milan talks about his work through the lens of his studio. To create the lush and sometimes unsettling multimedia works he is known for, Milan works in an expansive range of mediums, in studio spaces dedicated to wet or dry materials. His collages might incorporate cut photographs and silver leaf, while works on paper could include oil pastel and hand-dyed paper.

Lady Jane, 2023
graphite, pen, silver leaf, cut-and-paste paper on yupo, 16 x 13 inches (framed) [40.6 x 33 cm], unique

In the studio, Milan is a devoted public radio listener, and the major arcs of the news cycle regularly seep into his work. He often bases figures on images he finds in newspapers and magazines, and his recent work reflects the turbulence of our era. He also finds inspiration in literature, returning to work by Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin to explore the way personal narratives can connect to larger movements.

Pleasure and leisure are important ideas in Milan’s work, and he describes the rituals of his day that bring connection and relaxation. There are moments with his cats and his boyfriend, as well as interactions with the community that has formed in the building where his studio is located. 

Fraenkel Gallery Associate Director Lexi Brown spoke with the artist about his studio practice.

A desk in Wardell Milan’s studio features various works in progress

LB: What do you do in the morning, immediately when you get up? What else happens before you arrive at the studio that informs your day?

WM: I’m greeted every morning in bed by my two cats, Luca and Lee. Luca is the first to greet me good morning. He’ll stick his nose directly under mine to check my breathing. Or, maybe to smell my breath. After he is assured I’m still alive, we’ll have a brief conversation. Soon after his brother Lee crawls up next to me for some cuddles. He loves his morning love and attention. 

My boyfriend Raul and I will listen to NPR Morning Edition, while chatting and preparing for the day. Having a more traditional job, with traditional working hours, he normally leaves home before me. After my morning workout at the gym, I shuttle off to the studio. The goal is to arrive by 11-11:30.

Float, 2023
charcoal, acrylic, color pencil, spray paint, yupo paper, silver leaf, cut-and-paste paper, 46-5/8 x 32-3/4 inches (framed) [118.4 x 83.2 cm], unique

LB: Can you tell our readers about your studio? What’s your space like?

WM: I’ve had a studio in different locales in Long Island City for many, many years. First moving to the neighborhood in 2004, I shared a studio space with my dear friend and fellow artist Leslie Hewitt. Now, I have two large (by NYC standards) studios. Because I spend so much time in these spaces, the studios are my second home. My office space has sofas, a kitchenette, and a dining table. The space is comfortable and offers a relaxing area to hang out and for taking naps. I enjoy a late afternoon 20-minute nap.

The other spaces are devoted entirely to the making of art. I create all my works on paper and paintings and most of my photographic works in what I call the “dry studio.” In the “wet studio” I focus on my sculpture practice, hand dying paper, and using tools and processes that create a lot of dust and debris. 

Lovers. Outside the world is on fire., 2023
charcoal, graphite, acrylic, color pencil, pastel, oil pastel, yupo, cut-and-paste paper & woodblock print on hand-dyed paper, 56-1/8 x 71-1/8 inches (framed) 142.6 x 180.7 cm]

LB: Do you have any rituals when you first arrive at the studio?

WM: Yes, I change into my “work clothes”—a dingy pair of black pants and an equally dingy shirt. 

Lovers, taking in the air., 2023
aquatint, burnishing, line etching, scraping, spit bit aquatint & lino-cut, 59-5/8 x 48-1/4 inches (framed) [151.4 x 122.6 cm]

LB: What are your go-to books for inspiration? How did you first discover these books, and what inspires you to keep them around?

WM: GOOD QUESTION. I repeatedly return to Didion’s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Maggie Nelson’s, Bluets. And the works of Audre Lorde and my hero James Baldwin. I’m perennially inspired by the way these authors write about modern life. I find the way these intrepid writers have observed and critiqued the world both myopically and comprehensively, to be enormously inspiring. I look towards these luminaries, as guiding voices when considering what I want to say in my work. 

Magazines, books, and other print materials are inspiration for future works

LB: We have this wonderful photograph of a table covered with magazines and papers that I presume you’re using as source material. How do you find these sources, and how do you work with them?

WM: I LOVE magazines of all genres, zines, comic books, all print materials. I’m constantly purchasing print matter and keep a searching eye out for discarded magazines and books on trash day. I scan through this material daily. Always looking, searching, and finding inspiration in the photographic and printed image. Most often, this activity is an effort to find a desired type of image. A figure stationed in a particular pose, or a model expressing a certain emotion.

Superhero Status, 2023
graphite, china marker, yupo, cut-and-paste paper, 13-5/8 13-5/8 inches (framed) [34.6 x 34.6 cm]

LB: What do you listen to while you work?

WM: During the day I listen to NPR. The Brian Lehrer show in the morning. Alison Stewart, All Of It, from noon to 2pm. Fresh Air at 2pm, I love Terry Gross. Then 1A with the host Jenn White, followed by All Things Considered at 4pm…I sound like an old man. I normally turn to music after All Things.

Sitting in her adornments., 2023
graphite, acrylic, china marker, graphite, silver leaf & cut-and-paste yupo paper on panel, 21-1/2 x 31-1/2 inches (framed) [54.6 x 31.5 cm], unique

LB: Are there other artists in your building that you’re friendly with? What kinds of interactions do you have with your neighbors?

WM: The building is populated with numerous types of artists and creatives. Along with other visual artists, there’s three different fashion designers on my floor. Sometimes when exiting my studio, I’ll run into an impromptu fashion photoshoot. We’re all very friendly and cheer each other on. Most of our interactions and conversations take place in the hallways or…bathroom. There’s a lot of good energy on my floor.

Melina, Monique, Andrea flexing., 2023
charcoal, graphite, china marker, pastel, wood block print on paper, 41-3/8 x 43 inches (framed) [105.1 x 109.2 cm]

LB: On average, how long do you work on a piece before it’s done? Is that different for a work on paper vs. a painting?

WM: *mmmm-phew* It can take as long as five to seven months to five days to complete a work. Because of the nature of oil painting—the preparing of surfaces, the slow drying time of the paint, it takes longer to complete than a collage or drawing. It’s nice to have different work schedules and timings with the bodies of works. It allows for a constant flow and creates a welcomed tempo in the studio.

3 purple tulips., 2023
oil, charcoal, acrylic, china marker & graphite on panel, 25-1/2 x 31-1/2 inches (framed) [64.8 x 80 cm]

LB: Some of your illustrated floral still lifes are titled with initials. Without naming any names, who are you thinking of while making these works? How do you embody a loved one within a tulip?

WM: With my current tulip paintings—those created in the last two years—the flower acts as my surrogate, often representing my interior self. For this show, there’s a painting of two tulips sitting next to each other. Titled with initials, the painting represents the love and commitment shared between the couple. You already know who one of the tulips represents, no doubt.

I try to embody love using color. For example, my use of blue. The many different tones of this color have come to represent affirmation, love, resilience and advocacy. When illustrating the figures in my works with the color blue, I’m signaling to the viewer that this person or group of people, are to be championed, validated, and loved.

A single blue tulip., 2023
oil, charcoal, graphite, acrylic, china marker & silver leaf on panel, 31-1/2 x 25-1/2 inches (framed) [80 x 64.8 cm], unique
Linda K. Knoxville, 2023
graphite, china marker, yupo, cut-and-paste paper , 13-3/8 x 10-1/2 inches (framed) [34 x 26.7 cm]

LB: What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

WM: I watch cat rescue videos on YouTube. Or I’ll watch clips of congressional hearings. I love watching Rep. Jasmine Crockett expose and brutally demolish her nutty Right Wing Republican colleagues.

The cruel Mediterranean Sea, 2023
charcoal, graphite, acrylic, color pencil, pastel, oil pastel & cut-and-paste paper, 54-3/4 x 76-1/4 inches (framed) [139.1 x 193.7 cm]

LB: How long do you work, and when do you know that the day is done?

WM: I normally leave work around 8:30 – 9pm. When do I know the day is done? When my body is telling me it needs rest. For years I wouldn’t listen to my body. I’d continue working when I knew I was abundantly tired and should stop. Working like that wasn’t good for the work. I’d make sloppy decision​s and unnecessary mistakes.

With source images taped to the wall, Milan puts the finishing touches on “The cruel Mediterranean Sea,” 2023

LB: Right before the holidays, the fine art shippers came to your studio and packed everything up for our exhibition. What does it feel like to have everything leave?

WM: It feels like a great relief to have the work packed up and shipped off. It’s also the final test, for me. Is the new work good? Successful? Art handlers see different kinds of art all day, every day. They know what they like, and often know what they’re looking at, and have insightful thoughts regarding the art they see. As the art handlers were leaving the studio, walking out of the door, they said, “Really great work. We really like what you do.” That was it (I was getting nervous until then. An art handler making no comment about the work is depressing). After their comments, I felt confident about the new works, and them living out in the world.

Wardell Milan’s studio
Pencils, brushes, and other materials in Milan’s studio

Photography in the artist’s studio by Stan Narten, 2023

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