Face to Face with Mila Dau

by Claudia Conforti

July 2010

The Museo Nazionale di Villa Pisani in Stra is an extraordinary masterpiece of villa architecture built at the end of the Baroque period and it has an extraordinary garden, which is famous for its monumental labyrinth of greenery. Built along the Brenta Canal in the 18th century by the Pisani family, powerful Venetian patricians, the building had two designers: the first was Gerolamo Frigimelica, an aristocrat and a talented amateur architect from Padua, who left wooden maquettes of his design, today housed in the Museo Correr in Venice and in the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. We owe the magnificent main building block with its double courtyards to the architect Francesco Maria Preti who took over from Frigimelica. The building is still fitted with the villa’s ancient furnishings and displays brightly painted rooms and the famous frescoes of Giambattista Tiepolo depicting The Glory of the Pisani Family in the ballroom. For years the villa, whose size and magnificence put it on a par with other European royal residences, has promoted and housed exhibitions of contemporary artists, in the attempt to renew a creative continuity that seems at times to be missing.

The current show, which opened on July 17th, outlines two decades in the creative journey of Mila Dau, a talented Italian-Canadian architect and artist who has lived and worked in New York for the last twenty years. A clear text by Laura Cherubini accompanies and comments on the work which is installed in three rooms of the ground floor of the villa’s main building. Dau’s intense pictorial beginnings took place in Rome in the Eighties and focused on the figure. Portraits of hieratic, engrossed and, at times, almost totemic faces, whose features, captured with fulminating confidence in dull or deep colors, revealed the energy hidden deep within the individual and were combined with portraits of ancient Greco-Roman statues. The marble faces of men and gods that populate the Capitoline Museum, depicted in chalky tones of white and ash grey, mirrored with stunned tenderness a humanity deteriorated by time but still vibrant and aching in the living stone. Even Mila Dau’s American debut was marked by portraiture: but the accelerated rhythms and the frenzied energy of the Big Apple brought changes in the time and means of execution. The American portraits, grouped together under the title Face to Face, are all painted on canvases of the same format, 14 by 16 inches or about 41 by 36 centimeters, and mostly depict artists who work in New York. Each portrait was done in a sitting of one hour, a time in which both the artist portraying and the artist portrayed found themselves truly “face to face”. The painting thus became a kind of psychofigurative concentrate that cross-fertilized the faces of the artist’s imagination with the psychological experience of the encounter and the real face of the sitter being portrayed. What we see is a multifaceted weave of visual reflections, both conceptual and artistic, which fundamentally engage the mystery of creativity impressed in man’s genetic heritage.

Dau’s reflection subsequently shifted from the portraits of artists to the spaces assigned to the liturgy of contemporary art. Museums designed by famous international architects, with suspended, sacred atmospheres, vie for attention with the works of art on display and irresistibly attract the imagination and the hand of Mila Dau. The portraits of interiors which have absorbed the artist in the last few years, whether executed in oil, pastels or mixed media on paper, are truly numerous. The conceptual nature and semantic inquiry of Mila Dau’s investigation is explicitly manifested in this phantasmagoric production, ably documented by the exhibition at Stra. Her work is enhanced by a passion for contemporary architecture and an attraction to architecture’s symbolic implications and figurative potential: from the classically perspectival to the more fluctuating and dreamy. The portraits of the interiors of the modern cathedrals of art make up the series of Architectures, which is subdivided into Enfilades and Flooded Halls. Enfilades are small pastel drawings with softly colored areas that build concentrated perspectives or concatenations of vaguely claustrophobic suites of rooms. Disquieting frames painted on paper, teeming with minute organic marks (molecules? bacteria? fragments of explosions? geological cross-sections?) whose chromatic tones match the color schemes of the scene depicted, seal in the semantic ambiguity of the portraits of the interiors of art. In Flooded Halls, oils on paper 76 by 112 cm in size, lengthened perspectives alternate with dilated sections of museum spaces. But here the crystal-clear monochromatic rigor of the wall surfaces is enhanced (and ambiguously contradicted) by viscous horizontal filaments, intensely red, acidly yellow or electrically blue which – liquid-like – ripple upwards and interfere with the architecture’s euclidean exactitude. From Paris’s Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano to Rotterdam’s Kunsthal by Rem Koolhas, to Barcelona’s Museum of Modern Art by Richard Meier, to London’s Tate Modern by Herzog and de Meuron, the spaces of artistic contemplation are explored until their common conceptual roots are recovered; their common ideological and figurative matrix, and their common recourse to the abstract, Apollonian seduction of geometric harmony is made to emerge.

The close-knit sequence of Mila Dau’s figures reveals the substantial homogeneity of the spaces devoted to art by the great contemporary architects. The intact metric purity that intimately connects museum spaces to each other and imposes itself onto the works exhibited, vouches for architecture as an authentic perceptual hinge and an object of admiration and delight for visitors. In the kaleidoscopic figurative hallucination of Dau’s work, the space of contemporary art is unique and ideally continuous and only deceptively fragmented between Berlin and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Turin. It is like a karstic stream loaded with identical candid halls that float under the surface of the entire planet.

Following the artists and museum halls, the metaphorical cycle of Mila Dau’s art closes with the series titled Visitors and Staff; monochrome human figures scattered onto white sheets of paper that ripple lightly on the final wall of the exhibition. They sum up both expectations and meanings with the cheerful lightness of self-irony.

Solo exhibition of Mila Dau’s work, promoted by the Soprintendenza per i Beni culturali, Architettonici e Paesaggistici delle Province di Venezia, Belluno, Padova and Treviso, in the Museo Nazionale of Villa Pisani in Stra from 15 to 30 July, opened on Saturday, July 17.