New York

Keith Milow

Annina Nosei Gallery

At least since Van Gogh, there’s been a paradox in our reading of the piling up of paint. The thicker the surface, the less it seems to count as surface; the more strictly physical the surface seems—the less it carries the burden of representational use—the more susceptible it seems to being read as an expressive sign, the victim of our projections. Painting long ago became a suggestive tabula rasa, a textual vacuum filled by the audience’s expectations of profound meaning. It is as if calling attention to the surface for its own sake signaled the collapse of its power as a signifier, yet made it pregnant with secret significance; it became a charged field of forces radiant with obscure yet “clearly” psychodynamic meaning.

In Keith Milow’s work this freeing of the surface is incompletely accomplished. An image intrudes, far from innocently—i.e., not as the result of sticking with a model, as did Van Gogh, but rather as the sign of an enigmatic narrative, a half-recalled story. Pure paint is overhung with mythical imagery, as if Milow were telling us what the paint should evoke—tendentiously forcing us toward its visionary implications. He is under the constraint of trying to prove the dramatic point of the paint. Thus he ostentatiously combs it in a more or less uniform direction, embeds obscure figures in it, and translates it with titles that tell us he’s dealing with things primordial. The paint thus becomes the curtain on a staged mystery, full of profound (because half-legible) figural mutterings. This preempts both the paint and what it might evoke; both are presumptively and prematurely channeled. Milow doesn’t trust the spontaneity of his own handling to get “expressive” results—doesn’t get close enough to chaos to truly explore the “mystery.”

Yet this is the only way it can be today, when spontaneity of handling has become a tired tradition, and “extremism” a flourish which hardly amounts even to bravado. Milow’s works must be respected because they intelligently acknowledge the inevitable: that the conventions can no longer be finessed in the act of being articulated, as the Modernists thought; rather they dominate, because they are secure limits. One must see what one can accomplish within them, not with them—not in a pseudorevolution against them, but through a relentless, exploitive mastery of them. In works of Milow’s such as The Source, paint dominates; in others, such as The History of Architecture Baalbec, image dominates; in still others, such as Annunciation, paint and image harmonize “miraculously.” But all the works are significant in that they are characterized by vertiginous currents of paint, whose forces are so strong that they threaten to swamp the images they themselves mediate: In other words, a state of contradiction is declared within the Modern convention that insists that surface is self-declared paint. There is no longer the belief that we can get a free ride from painting; it is no longer a magic carpet to a never-never land of meaning. Rather, surface is again recognized as a circular argument, like every convention; it can transcend none of its implications, from illusionism to sensitizing spontaneity. Today it is realized that one of the opposites that structure a convention cannot be obliterated by the other. We experience this as an uncertainty—as an expression of the unconsummate character of each opposite without the other.

In Milow’s work this is shown in the archaic character of the illusionistic space. The content itself is like an archaic smile within this space; the edge or bloom is off the touch, and there is more a recognition of immediacy than a demonstration of it. But this is to be expected with the recognition of the inevitability of imagery within the purest surface. Indeed, the purer the surface the more archaic—metaphysically rooted, as it were, in our psyches—the imagery is likely to be. Milow’s importance is that he accepts this contradiction, this special doubleness aroused by the purest means.

Donald Kuspit