First Look: Milano Chow
Art in America Magazine
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Milano Chow’s highly detailed drawings depict impossible arrangements of ornate objects. Dinnerware (2014–2015) is typical of the trompe l'œil graphite-on-paper work the Los Angeles-based artist has produced over the past few years. Floating behind the elaborate façade of a curio cabinet are a spoon, a butter knife, a plate and a fork. The shadows cast by these items suggest the shallowness of the cabinet's interior, but there is no discernible background. Instead, the pieces of crockery and silverware hover vertiginously before a pale monochrome void.
Chow's works fool the eye twice: first through their apparent illusionism, and then, upon closer inspection, through the uncanny feasibility of their space. There is a clear pictorial logic at play in all her current works, some of which incorporate collage. Drop shadows are always consistent, architectural forms look solid, and depicted objects hover and touch in similarly hesitant ways from piece to piece.
Chow finds inspiration in the history of interior design, and much of her work explores links between furniture, architecture and the decorative arts. In a recent phone interview, Chow cited art historian Wu Hung, who has analyzed how painted Chinese screens can generate a space, rather than simply fill or embellish it. By representing mantelpieces, bookcases and cabinets, Chow foregrounds structures that often serve as frames or display surfaces. Her work simultaneously riffs on the relationship between flatness and illusionistic depth—a major concern of modernist pictorial art—and on the impulse toward curating and archiving evident in contemporary culture.
The objects that fascinate Chow tend to exude old-fashioned charm: neoclassical crown molding, rotary phones, Art Deco perfume bottles and luxurious Chinese combs. Such articles originate in different eras and cultures but are linked by their refinement and attention to ornamental detail. Chow explained her interest in exploring “design in excess of use value” and the affront that such adornment has presented to the “hygienic” modernist tradition.
For Chow, ornament functions like a halo around useful things; it imbues singularity, seduction, grace. She manages to conjure this sensual glow in austere grisaille. By presenting images of old–school luxury through unique works of contemporary art—luxury goods in themselves—Chow alludes to a historical continuity between the top–tier commodities of yesterday and today.