ESSAY SYMON WATSON
DENISE MILAN: A STUDIO VISIT
My first visit to Denise Milan's studio in São Paulo was rather formal. The purpose was to view Milan's sculptures and learn about her installations, as well to look over a formidable number of past exhibition catalogues. It was during a follow-up visit that I unearthed a trove of boxes filled to the top with hundreds and hundreds of photographs and collages that Milan had been making for more than fifteen years while in the field in Paraty and in Bahia, as well as in the studio. The photographs were of people, landscapes, and geodes, which in my view expressed her artistic focus on the unique relationship between culture and landscape in Brazil.
I have subsequently gotten to know Denise and discovered that she is never without her camera, always documenting what she sees, and always making photo collages - all of which used to end up in those boxes, never seeing the light of an exhibition space. It was this discovery of a vast cache of previously unknown artworks that has become Denise Milan: Mist of the Earth, an overarching conceptual project and traveling exhibition of 103 artworks first seen in the United States at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2012, that now arrives in São Paulo in refined form.
Galeria Virgílio's presentation of Denise Milan: Mist of the Earth contains 33 richly saturated color photo-prints based on the artist's ongoing photo-collage practice, and offers a compelling visual journey. Working from a deeply humanistic tradition - now for more than twenty years, as an ecological and arts education activist, as well as an artist—Milan has been making sculptures, photographs, and performances that draw actively from her experiences living with and interviewing people in the Brazilian coastal villages and the dry desolate lands of Brazil's northeast.
Mist of the Earth is the culmination of this experience and the embodiment of the artist's ongoing concerns: a testament to a troubling legacy of colonization, the enslavement of African and indigeneous peoples, and the despoilment of whole regions, as well as a tribute to the more life-asserting side of Brazil, its beauty and soaring spirit. So while Mist of the Earth bears witness to the tragedies of humanity's depredations, it also introduces the power of repair and a space of healing.
Simon Watson is an independent curator, critic and art advisor based in New York City and São Paulo. A New York art world veteran contemporary art scene, Watson has curated more than 200 exhibitions and advised on art collections for galleries and museums as well as for private collectors. Watson's essays appear in DasArtes, Huffington Post, and Whitewall magazines.