Studio Visit: Michael Milano

This studio visit is a part of the exhibition ROUNDS featuring new works by Michael Milano, Alyssa Moxley, and Milad Mozari. The exhibition is organized by Make Space in conjunction with ACRE.

The first time I saw Michael Milano‘s work, something in the repetitive pattern drawings resonated with me. They were like weavings or textiles but without the cloth—just lines drawn in different colored marker on sheets of graph paper. They were clean, quiet, and neatly organized on the page – simple iterations of a single pattern unit shifting across the grid. I was intrigued by the work and wanted to learn more about Michael’s process and his drive to make it.

I actually met Michael shortly after encountering his work, and I invited him to be featured on Make Space. Then, he ended up as the Teaching Assistant for a class I took at Ox-Bow over the summer and in November, I moved into a studio directly next to his in a building on the corner of Damen and Fulton. With this close proximity, it was fairly easy for us to meet up for a studio visit about his work in December. This took place right before we found out that we would also be working together for Make Space’s first show with ACRE, where Michael was a resident last summer. This past weekend, Jason and I got to go back in Michael’s studio to see what he’s been up to and talk about his work for the show.

It’s been interesting to see Michael’s work change from the images that I first saw about a year ago. He’s still making patterned-based drawings but now is incorporating other materials like quilt batting, fabric, thread, and stretched canvas. These material choices are not surprising, considering that Michael got his Masters in Fine Arts from the Fiber and Material Studies Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His drawings have strong connections to quilt patterns and weave drafts – grid-based drawings that are used to plan weavings. Michael explained that it was towards the very end of his time at SAIC when he initially started moving away from working with materials and began just making drawings. “I got really sick of playing with materials … I just wanted to concentrate on the structure without the thing,” he explained. Drawing became a way in which he could continue to explore the possibilities of how these patterns could be put together while eliminating the actual objects. He saw the drawings as studies – they could be final products, objects, or they could just be prototypes. Drawing was also a mode for figuring something out or thinking out loud. He questioned whether an entire practice could be based off only making studies and never turning them into actual things. He drew a connection to weave drafts which are just steps in the creation of woven cloth but have interesting visual presences in themselves. “I was thinking, maybe it’s more conceptual in some ways if it never becomes the thing if it’s always the draft.”

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Michael’s more recent work has made a move back to materiality. His newer drawings look more like quilts — or maybe paintings, we weren’t sure. In a process similar to what he uses to create his drawings on paper, Michael is taking different aspects of the quilt-making process and breaking them down to make formal choices in the work. Some of his new works are composed of pieced fabric pinned or stitched onto a stretched canvas. In others, he uses stitched marks to create new patterns following the prints on found pieces of fabric. The stitches not only create a visual pattern but also quilt the fabric onto the batting and stretched canvas to create a texture that further points to the work’s objecthood. Michael explains that his interest in quilts doesn’t lie in their role as functional or socially charged objects but as geometric abstractions, similar to abstract paintings. By incorporating quilt patterns and processes into his practice, Michael can explore the same types of pattern possibility that he investigates in his drawings on paper.

The word “possibility” is one that came up repeatedly in both visits to Michae’s studio. No matter what form Michael’s work takes – drawing, quilt, painting, object, audio recording – he is continually investigating the possibilities within a certain set of parameters. He has a fascination in the idea of what might be possible within the rules he sets for a project. It’s approached somewhat like a mathematical proof or maybe a game. Often times, he might have an idea or a hypothesis of what might result. Sometimes he even makes tests before he begins. He starts with a simple form or shape and then tries to see how much can be done with that shape through really simple alterations, such as mirroring, rotating, repeating, and tessellating. He tries to find all of the possibilities or combinations that are possible for that shape.

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Even when he starts with an idea or plan for his drawing, he will be surprised by what happens throughout the process of making the work, these discoveries within the process carry him to the end of each piece. With the result unknown ahead of time, the work comes together like a poem or a song, piece by piece, line by line. The work becomes like a visual drone – almost entirely the same throughout but consisting of subtle shifts and changes over time that an audience can enter or exit at will.

An art practice based on making rules for oneself, at first, may seem strict, limiting, or boring. For Michael though, it is like playing or perhaps like solving a puzzle or riddle. He sets finite parameters for himself, and then gives himself the challenge of finding all of the possibilities within those bounds. It turns into a game, complete with a “rulebook”, an end goal, and a playing field. The class that Michael co-taught over the summer at Ox-Bow was called Party as Form. In class, we had a lot of discussions about structured play. It often seems to be the case that, when we are in settings in which we know the boundaries and the rules for how to act, we can open up to be more free and playful than in situations that are open-ended or ambiguous. By setting these rules for himself, Michael sets up his art practice as a platform for this same type of play.

Make Space and ACRE Projects is proud to present ROUNDS // new work by MICHAEL MILANO, ALYSSA MOXLEY and MILAD MOZARI, the next installment in ACRE’s year-long series of solo exhibitions by 2013 ACRE summer residents.