Los Angeles

Keith Milow

Pence Gallery

The works in Keith Milow’s recent show, entitled “100 Drawings,” function first and foremost as a unit. Realized in oil on copper, aluminum, or lead and mounted on plywood, the works present a distinctive visual lexicon. The uniformity of their format and execution and the resemblance of many of the drawings to enlarged ancient manuscript pages reinforce the sense that they are leaves from an image book. They seem meant to be read together, though not necessarily in any particular sequence.

Milow’s vocabulary consists of an array of decorative devices that appear to be derived from Renaissance painting: orbs, stars, dead branches in various symmetrical configurations, Roman numerals, undulating ribbons, and wreathes that look like crowns of thorns. These forms; employed in the classical era as flourishes rather than as the central subject matter, are gently juggled by Milow. Seemingly weightless, they tumble, hover, and swim in front of plain, drab backgrounds. The Roman numerals in particular seem immune to the pull of gravity. They float and flip, arranging themselves amusingly—now like calipers, now like chopsticks, clothespins, or pillars.

The artist artificially ages the surfaces of these works with acids and oils, and the resulting corrosion functions as an important compositional and atmospheric feature of the works. Green and red oxidation lend the pieces both pathos and energy: pathos because rust suggests decay, and energy because, while emblematic of dissolution, the works’ patina is luminous and provides unexpected bursts of visual life. Spidery patterns of cracks, bubbles, drips, and fiery fissures serve as counterpoints to the elegant symbols they both emphasize and obscure. The distressed quality of the surfaces of these works counters the tightly controlled delicacy and skill with which the ghostly motifs are painted. The effect is comparable to the way mushrooms spring up in a tidily manicured lawn, or the way climbing ivy gives a weathered garden wall a picturesque aspect, even though the ivy may eventually pull it down.

The name “Parsifal” appears in several works, either painted in semitransparent letters, or in a contemporary-looking typewriterlike typeface along metal strips that run down the side of several paintings. This interjection of words into works that function largely on a visual level is somewhat jarring. The voices of Milow’s strange symbols and the scratchy whine of the encroaching rust both exist in a silence that is disturbingly broken by spelled-out words. This remains true even when the word invoked happens to be the name of a mythic saintly fool. Seeing “Parsifal” written in this context is plainly baffling. On facing walls, marvelous pieces that ape disintegrating illuminated manuscript pages (complete with mutated, sometimes somersaulting ornamental initials and ersatz text consisting of thin strips or bars) were much more affecting. The show’s odd, voluble wordlessness was the source of the pleasure it provided and its greatest strength.

Amy Gerstler