Paper, Paint & Tattoos: Milena’s Unique Language
By Odette Artiles
Milena Martínez Pedrosa is a complex artist who communicates power, irony and connection through the use of realistic bodies and head-scratching iconography. In Milena’s work nothing is straightforward, yet it is easy to read, better yet, understand. Complex and albeit mysterious, Milena both denounces and feeds off the censorship and limited freedom present in her native country of Cuba; providing paradoxical tension between commenting on unfair societal realities and the acknowledgment that it fuels her artistic passions. More than that however, Milena’s works are tender and intimate in that her need to touch people through her works and the connections she forms with the stories she creates, like an author writing a book, are her driving force. Certainly, we have seen this combination before in other artists, most notably in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work has and continues to inspire Milena. Conceptual, minimalistic, and poetic, Gonzalez-Torres’ works move, compel and much like Milena’s, appeal to the emotions, the soul rather than reason or logistics. These themes are apparent in Milena’s exhibition Captivity Forces, displayed at the Kendall Art Center. Most notably in her principle works’ “Can I?” and “A Matter of Time.”
“Can I?” is a work that showcases Milena’s ability to convey a collectively understood theme: self-doubt. The painting is a portrait of a woman, set against a dark backdrop. A self-portrait? Maybe. Maybe not, perhaps it is beside the point. The meticulously painted face is encircled, almost framed by the following words: Can I? Should I? You Cannot Do It, Too Late, You Can Do It, in transparent acrylic all around. This intertextual-image play represents the cyclical mental/emotional wheel of doubts and thoughts present in probably every Cuban that has emigrated from the island. The beauty of her work however, is that one does not necessarily have to be Cuban to empathize with her work. Everyone experiences the tension between the little devil and angel forever propped on our shoulders, constantly whispering and inviting uncertainty. ‘Can I?’ You wonder. ‘Don’t do it’ the devil whispers. ‘Should I?’ The cautious voice of reason asks. ‘You cannot do it’ states the devil. ‘Too late’ whispers the heart on a leap of faith, the abandonment of reason and logic. ‘You can do it’ she seems to say to herself in confidence.
Milena made this internal conflict external by blending reality with imagination and transforming it into a symbolic composition, something that harkens back to Surrealism and its core value of liberating the unconscious mind. The acrylic letters are there and yet they are not, they exist outside the woman, acting like figurative subtitles to the interpretation of the painting. By bringing the internal into the visible world, she tells a familiar story; much like anyone who succeeds in building a life and career after leaving behind everything for the unknown, the face in the painting is triumphant and exudes power. The You Can Do It bit gleams with the caravaggesque lighting. Milena guides the viewer through the waves of obstacles present in the written doubts on the inscription, staring at the onlooker unabashedly, brimming with conquest.
Imagination continues to interact with the body, text and images to create a coexistence of socio-political realities and a sweet/strange, hopeful picture in “A Matter of Time.” The body within the painting has no identity, not even a face; it is just a scrupulously painted person with a tattoo of a Cicada, an insect common to her native Cuba (its cigar-like shape earning it the moniker Cigarra), perched on a bowed, clean-shaven head. A collage of white origami cicada’s flutter delicately around the figure, a symbol of hope, resurrection and emergence; this work thus exudes a hopeful message. It is almost tender the way the figure longingly caresses the tattoo, an iconography of flight, freedom, and blossoming. The words A Matter of Time grace the bottom of the piece. A matter of time until what, I fly? I grow? Escape? Maybe she does not know how to fly.
The work is conceptual, an example of a corporeal expression that is not limited to the physical movement of the body. Tattoos are also a form of ‘body language,’ a way to express creativity and beauty through the body, and are a common visual tool for Milena. Tattoos in her works are the visual conversion of scars, the things in the external world that leave marks on the flesh. She turns the human body into a canvas and all the stains and scars left by the world turn into symbols, into art. It is contradictory, that something painful can give rise to something so beautiful. The tattoo is something permanent while the Cicada, insects, wings, and birds are by nature fleeting and free. The juxtaposition is surrealist as Milena separates her work from the rational and instead, produces a kind of dream-like state. As paradoxical as it is, Milena still manages to harmonize these opposing elements; perhaps the figure wants to attain freedom or prolong the sensation it gives, a sensation every Cuban is probably intimately familiar with.
Milena’s dealings in symbols, contexts and unspoken references leave the viewer to develop an intimate and unique dialogue with the work, an aforementioned essential facet of her work. The viewer is the one who ties the ambiguous playfulness of the relationship between text and image together. Actually, part of Milena’s charm is the way she invites and integrates the participation of the viewer into her process, thus adding multiple levels of interpretation, depending on the individual. Nevertheless, what is vital is the humility present in her work: she opens the door but does not force you inside; she leads you to water but does not force you to drink, consequently showing how much consideration she places on the interpretation of the viewer, rather than hard lining a singular analysis. Moreover, the title, the words are just as important as the image itself, so the text, its title, allows for a stronger impact and a focalized meaning. The imagination and opinion of the audience is a part of her oeuvre, she is an artist that is empowered by the extroverted nature of her culture and so does not mind in giving power to those who would otherwise harshly judge her, in giving them carte blanche in terms of what they take away and how they construe her work.
Most of all, Milena paints in accordance with her muse, when that eureka hits it cannot be ignored and it pours out all at once, even after a long dormition. The Cicada is also a symbol of personal transformation and after 17 years bursts forth en masse in a glorious natural wonder; much like the insect, after 20 years without a voice or a need to paint, Milena’s work and this exhibition is akin to that transformation. She is a unique artist in that; she finds inspiration not only in her heritage, but also in her success in manifesting the public’s voice, in provoking a reaction. An impressive ability given the works’ puzzling nature, but then again the less you understand something, the more you look, think and talk about it, until the eureka hits and makes you appreciate it all the more.
Odette Artiles 2018