Museums – or the containers of art – have been the content of my art for several years. Perhaps the study of architecture induced me to focus on museum buildings, or maybe I was influenced by the wonder and feeling of belonging in the presence of art. As the child of two immigrants, art offered me a way to transcend national identity beyond specific geographic and cultural boundaries and an opportunity to discover and create a personal identity. Thus the architectures of art became the content of cycles of formally different but conceptually related projects.
In time, my focus shifted from the empty containers to the inhabited spaces of art. In 2010, I began to include cutouts of the people seen visiting the museums. Initially intended as a compositional tool for the empty interiors, Visitor Cutouts (oil on paper or linen on foam core) quickly developed into an independent series and a resource for my work.
The process of making the work begins with a “real” museum setting and “real” figures caught in the moment of looking at art but it can also veer away from the photos upon which the paintings are based. The cutout figures can be combined with or detached from the museum context from which they came. I realized that the figures interacting with each other and with the spaces around them created other “realities”. This was an opportunity for me to tell stories with spaces and figures simply by playing with the combinations and permutations of painted backgrounds and painted cutout figures.
Paradoxically, by separating from the empty museum container as the main concern of my work and, at the same time, from the stretched linen surface (but not from painting), I discovered possibilities beyond my initial content. I realized I could focus more on the narrative (which had always been present in my work) while building the images of the painting. I was also emboldened to trust the narrative process more and use it to guide the entire creative process.
Cutout figures can be moved, hung or affixed to the painting plane or made to enter or leave at will. The simple act of separating the figures from the background transforms the painting plane into an imaginary space in which indoor and outdoor, within and without, lose their distinction. Women visitors entering or leaving the painting, perhaps raise the question of what women’s place in the art world is, or affirm it. The art seems to scream for attention as viewers distractedly consult their phones or walk past the scene into another dimension beyond the painting. A figure stands outside the picture plane photographing something unseen somewhere else. Another steps out into an immaterial place leaving the museum interior behind. I did not ask these people to take over when I added figures to the museum interiors, but after I had, they compelled me to tell both their stories and mine.
Mila Dau New York, 2017