Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

1/16/2010

Wardell Milan’s Drawings of Harlem

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Harlem is an amazing neighborhood. I've heard so much about it (and seen so many renditions of it in mass media) that it's hard to say what the real Harlem is. Wardell Milan, long-time resident and artist, give me a chance to see the neighborhood through rose-colored glasses. That's not such a bad thing, after all.
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We all take photographs on vacation. And chances are what come out on film only show part of the story. Missing luggage, bad directions, lost companions. Horrendous instances fade from memory to be replaced by sugar-coated tales of toothy smiles, heady camaraderie and shared adventure.

The same goes for Wardell Milan’s Drawings of Harlem at Studio Museum. In fifty-one sketches, Milan presents a Harlem free from drugs, crime and gentrification. It is a far cry from his angst-ridden vaguely homoerotic rendition of wrestling men in Desire and the Black Masseur. Yet, Milan uses the same furious up and down pencil movement that give Drawings its vigor. He combines this style with a relaxed Impressionistic hand, much like Monet’s brush strokes, stirring visual interest in what could easily be a saccharine exhibition.

Using colored pen and pencil, Milan traces out a Harlem we wish we all knew. Within a small frame, Milan vivifies cherished neighborhood landmarks in hazy glory with zigzags of strokes. The Apollo Theater marquee is pulsates as it proclaims the late Michael Jackson a true Apollo legend. Brite-Lite Barbershop’s barber’s poles swirl joyfully on the page. Brownstones and Baptist churches rise in quiet dignity. Milan leaves out much of the detail and allows visitors to fill in the gaps with their own notions of Harlem.

Milan also spares some paper for the heart of Harlem—its people. Well-placed lines and squiggles introduce us to two large ladies garbed in bright-colored billowy African dress, a hobo gratefully resting on a park bench and teens suited up in skinny jeans and hip-hop regalia.

Arranged randomly in groups of twos to sixes, the framed sketches play along the walls, giving viewers sips of Harlem at its best. Small in comparison to the two and a half floors occupied by a concurrent exhibition, 30 Seconds off an Inch, Drawings gives sincere homage to a neighborhood that electrified musical legends, artistic geniuses and dance mavens.
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Here's a short video tour with artist interview on The Grio.

Drawings of Harlem is on view until March 14, 2010. Studio Museum is located at 144 West 125th Street, New York, New York. The best time to go is on Sundays where Target sponsors the entrance fee to the museum.

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