Amid the sprawling new show by L.A. artist Brandi Milne at the Corey Helford Gallery is a pair of portraits of the artist’s mother, who died of lung cancer roughly 10 years ago. One represents her after death, and in it her face is skull-like, with expressive eyeholes and thinning pink hair framed by a yellow lace collar blooming like a flower. The other represents her before death, seen from above with flowing pink hair and ermine stole, her face, again, skull-like.
“In my dreams, I still can’t see her face,” Milne says, describing her reaction to the loss while also shedding some light on her process. “I don’t know if it was her in the beginning. But then as I understood it [the paintings] better, I realized that, yeah, they were both her. The one that was titled Queen is how I saw her. That was in life. She was my queen. I almost idolized her. But after she passed away, I had all these discoveries of myself.”
“Once Upon a Quiet Kingdom,” which runs through Sept. 16, is a journey to that discovery, featuring 42 new paintings and three drawings by the Anaheim native, all set in her childlike, cyanide-laced universe of cartoons, candies and toys. In the title piece, two snowmen play in a rose-colored snowscape, enjoying too much ice cream from a giant container. It is an image of unbridled indulgence until you notice the trees in the background are dead, and the carton is stamped with a faded skull and crossbones.
In Fiend, a bare-breasted woman wearing lingerie and a kinky mask hunches over her obsession in a nighttime forest. Subtitled “the ever hunger, wild beast,” she might be in the throes of orgasm or she might be a carnivore feeding on fresh kill. But instead of meat, her obsession is cupcakes, with maraschino cherries dripping syrup like blood on her naked back and blue hair.
This is Milne’s fifth solo show with Corey Helford Gallery, which recently moved to Boyle Heights after nine years in Culver City. As with past works, like those in her 2014 show “Here Inside My Broken Heart,” faces are rendered with as few distinct features as possible without being blank, often less expressive than the many skulls and jack-o-lanterns that populate her oeuvre. The new series represents a shift in palette set off by a fluorescent red acrylic she came across in an art supply store about three years ago. It predominates from image to image, igniting a chain reaction that brightens the color scheme.
“It’s referring to the world that I grew up in, that bubble,” Milne says, breaking down the show’s title by describing her sheltered childhood. She and her three older siblings grew up seeing the world through their devoutly Christian mother’s eyes. “My mom kind of didn’t want us to grow up. I really believed the world was a certain way. In my bubble, we were raised in a religious atmosphere and some of the things that I understood as to how the world works, it really doesn’t work that way. That kind of religion, that was my foundation. In a lot of ways it wasn’t real.”
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When she started out, Milne had no idea an art market existed but figured since she'd taught herself to paint, she probably could make some money teaching others. Her pop-surrealist style and backstory place her squarely among other “lowbrow” artists, members of a subgenre that proliferated in L.A. in the late '70s and beyond, with imagery derived from racy comics and punk-rock iconography. Famous practitioners include Mark Ryden, who recently designed the costumes and sets for the similarly candy-theme Whipped Cream, a world-premiere ballet for ABT.
“I think it helps people to categorize it. It helps to put people in boxes,” says Milne about the notion of highbrow and lowbrow art. “I want to do what I want to do. I want to grow and I want people to see it and love it and respond to it and talk about it. That’s all.”
"Once Upon a Quiet Kingdom," Corey Helford Gallery, 571 S. Anderson St., #1, Boyle Heights; through Sept. 16. coreyhelfordgallery.com.