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Milano Chow’s solo show at Bel Ami shares its title with the Mid-City apartment complex Park La Brea, the largest apartment complex west of the Mississippi. In contrast to the openness of much So-Cal residential architecture, this sprawling mid-century development is massive and mysterious: the complex is some 160 acres, containing 18 hulking apartment towers and housing 10,000 residents. Chow’s work channels a similar sense of the unknown, secrecy, and enigma. Her exacting graphite and ink drawings depict crisp architectural facades—their aesthetic is at odds with Park La Brea’s modernity, but her structures are just as withholding. In Chow’s drawings, meticulously rendered pilasters, friezes, and scalloped niches conjure a generic classical style. In some, she adds accents like Chinese lion sculptures or cranes on a folding screen—loaded, appropriative symbols of sophistication popular in 18th and 19th century Europe that contribute to the sense of aesthetic pretense. Chow’s cold, precise draftsmanship captures the projected, though affected refinement that withholds any impression of interior life within.
These facades—familiar, surreal, alienating—are like stage sets, into which Chow has inserted small images of women. Unlike the hand-drawn settings, the women are photo-transfers lifted from ’80s fashion ads—ersatz versions of studied blankness which Chow collages into literal windows cut through the paper of her architectural drawings. The women gaze out or pose in archways. Two works depict baroquely ornate clocks with small female figures lounging on them, turning these functional yet decorative objects into props. Although cribbed from sources in which their raison d’être was self-display, the women in Chow’s drawings refuse to reveal themselves, hiding defiantly in the shadows and holding their secrets close.
In a pair of three-dimensional works that stand upright like little dioramas, Corner (2019) and Other Corner (2020), Chow has created each scene with two doors and a folding screen, into which a paper doll of a woman enters from an archway or is hidden behind the screen. This is the closest Chow gets to action in these works, and to revealing interior spaces—yet the women disclose nothing about their intentions or thoughts, all surface and poise.
In the show’s press release, Chow recalls watching the entire 12 seasons of The Real Housewives of New York City during quarantine. On the surface, her elegant compositions bear little in common with the epitome of trashy reality TV. However, from her architectural fabrications to her subtle juxtapositions of figures, Chow’s works are all about artifice, image construction, and the building of sophisticated facades behind which lies something intriguing but never fully revealed. That she does so with such meticulous craft only makes the ruse that much more compelling.
Milano Chow: Park La Brea runs from October 21–December 5, 2020, at Bel Ami (709 N. Hill St., Suite #105, Los Angeles, CA 90012).