It looks like Milano Chow’s drawings could have been made at any point in the last few centuries. The 1920s? Why yes. Nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil experiments? Why not? The five mid-size drawings (the smallest one measures 50 × 38 cm, the largest a modest 90 × 58 cm) hanging in her show, ‘The Painted Screen’, at Chapter NY’s tiny Lower East Side space are in inconspicuous white frames and hang on walls painted a light grey-blue. The installation is a stretch from your average white cube gallery display and, despite the intimate scale of the works, feels closer to museum galleries of European paintings, which only intensifies the sense of being out-of-time.
All graphite on paper, the drawings depict interiors but not exactly interior scenes. Instead, they show fragments: a doorway, a mantelpiece, a window. They’re composed of the stuff of a belle époque European apartment broken down into its constituent parts and peppered with contemporary details: a light switch, a door chain, an extendable magnifying mirror of the kind found in a hotel room. Though these are rendered in a perfect illusionist technique, the drawings do not create three-dimensional spaces, or ones that seem inhabitable. Where figures are represented (in three of the works), they are in the form of collaged clippings of 1980s Vogue advertisements (though the fashion they depict seems timeless rather than from the era of padded shoulders).
In Frame (Entrance, Lock) (2014), the figure of a woman in a long skirt opens a slim door. There’s no telling what’s behind it. Below is a chain lock almost the size of the woman. The background is grey and framed by a panel of flowers and vegetation, another 19th-century detail. It’s not exactly a scene; nor is it devoid of narrative. Why is there a lock and a door that do not touch? The woman looks away from the door, toward something beyond the top-right corner of the drawing. The whole composition feels like a cross between film noir, Giorgio De Chirico and René Magritte.
Chow’s drawings are entrenched in many stylistic traditions yet fully inhabit none. Just as her compositions suggest a narrative that may or may not be there, her mix-and-match sense of history is both method and proposal: a viewer can be enticed in by what is left untold.
The exhibition takes its title from a 1996 essay by art historian Wu Hung, which examines materiality in traditional Chinese painting by focusing on the practice of painting screens. Wu’s essay addresses technique, tying in neatly with Chow’s focus on a meticulous drawing practice. It also introduces another architectural element into the exhibition, and a further narrative. Though none of her works include a disruptive or disguising architectural element, they all play on what remains unseen: a mirror without a reflection, a mantelpiece with no fire. The viewer is left to reconstruct what is behind the screen or to take these drawings at face value and accept them for the technical feats they are.