Editors' pick

Jackie Milad: Inside Mouth

Painting/Drawing
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Editorial Review

Exhibit: "Jackie Milad: Inside Mouth" is a catalogue of human expression

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

There are 723 pencil-on-paper portraits on view at Flashpoint, a downtown art gallery that might seem, for those who know it, hardly large enough to hold a tenth that many pictures. It helps that each is about the size of a postage stamp.

The central works in "Jackie Milad: Inside Mouth" are five large sheets of drawing paper, each covered with a grid featuring anywhere from 84 to 216 tiny human faces. Like mug shots, some face forward, some to the side. They're all bald as the tip of your finger, giving new meaning to the term thumbnail sketch.

Together, the Baltimore-based artist's drawings form a kind of haphazard lexicon of the language of human expression. Although laid out in rows and columns in seemingly systematic fashion, there's no real rhyme or reason to how the images -- drawn from snapshots, found images and sometimes Milad's own face in the mirror -- are organized. The emotions on view range from smug satisfaction to Edvard Munch-like horror to feelings that cannot easily be named. Constern-fusion? Perturb-nition? Interestingly, the fifth sheet is incomplete, with several squares on the grid left blank, suggesting a never-ending catalogue.

Milad's draftsmanship itself is wonderful. Whether monstrous, cartoonish or all too recognizable, her faces have a warmth and sense of humor that belies their clinical presentation. One minute, you might find yourself thinking, "Isn't that so and so?" The next: "Is it even possible to make such a face?"

But it's the show's conceptual foundation that gives it its heft, anchoring what is superficially so lightweight that it threatens to float away. (From a distance, you can hardly even see the drawings. You have to get right up on top of them to appreciate them.)

That foundation becomes clear with the addition of 18 photographic portraits hung along one wall. The pictures, all featuring strangers who volunteered to don a rubber bald "wig" and pose for the artist's camera, show that Milad's tongue-in-cheek taxonomy of facial expression is less jokey than it might appear. The expressions in the photos are, at times, as odd and hard to decipher as those in the drawings, reinforcing a singular notion.

Yes, Milad's drawing project can come off at first like a kind of field research, an anthropological survey, presented for your consideration. But those photos -- along with three hand mirrors you'll find hanging in the back of the gallery -- drive home the point that documentation isn't really her goal here.

Next to each mirror is a bald cap like those worn in the photographs. Go ahead, Milad says, try one on. You may find it impossible to imitate certain faces. Those mirrors are there to remind you that you're not just the reader in this library of faces.

You are, in fact, the book.

Public program: On Feb. 13 at 1 p.m., Milad will give a free gallery talk about her work.