A quick glance at Brandi Milne's art might prompt thoughts of a candy-coated world rich in vibrant colors and youthful innocence, but peel back the layers and darker themes begin to reveal themselves. Milne's visual universe exists at the point in the characters' lives where the safe shelters of childhood give way to a growing sense of uncertainty and insecurity. The idea that "you can be whatever you want to be" fades into wanting to be something different than you actually are. Milne might not aim to tell these stories, but the narratives emerge naturally from an emotionally driven artist dealing with her own internal strife.
Milne's new solo exhibit, Once Upon a Quiet Kingdom, reflects the next evolution in her life, and by extension, her art. Just as the title imagines what might be considered a paradox, the show itself epitomizes poetic conflict as seen in Vampire Barbie, Death Song (portrait of artist's mother, in death) and the piece that gave the show its name. Once Upon a Quiet Kingdom runs through September 16 at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles.
Storytelling obviously plays a major role in your works. To what extent do you build a narrative before starting a new piece, and how do you decide what moment in the story you want to capture?
When I begin a piece, I start with something I’m feeling—an emotion, a thought, lyric from a song or image that might be bouncing around in my head. I sketch out some quick thumbnails to further explore the subject and composition that I like best, and when I’m satisfied, I transfer the sketch onto the panel that will be the final painting. I like to keep things loose so I can explore the entire painting as I go along and allow the narrative to develop naturally. It’s almost as if the painting is telling me what and who it is as I’m working on it. I just need to listen and let it flow organically.
What would be a new piece in Once Upon a Quiet Kingdom that's driven by a narrative you don't quite understand yourself?
There were a few paintings in this body of work that seemingly popped out of nowhere. I didn’t quite understand where they came from or what their part of the story was. It wasn’t until a few other paintings developed that I could see they all had their place—they all spoke of a common theme. My new painting The Hand That Feeds You (feeds you life or feeds you death) is a great example. It kind of baffled me for a while, but it began to make sense as I painted a few others. I could see how that painting subconsciously helped develop the paintings that followed as well as strengthened the overall theme of the show. It’s hard not to judge things that come out, especially if I don’t understand them myself. But if I judge and react harshly, I most definitely will miss what my subconscious wants to say and the beauty and insight in where that can take me.
What does it mean to find beauty in ugliness, and how does the coexistence of beauty and ugliness manifest in your artwork and characters?
Beauty in ugliness. I’ve lived a long time seeing the world in black and white. Good and bad. Right and wrong. But recently, I’ve come to realize that it’s all in how you look at it. There’s always beauty in pain, beauty in ugliness—I’ve grown exponentially from the worst things that have happened to me in my life. The beauty comes from how I react to and interpret what happened. What I choose to do with it. Do I choose to roll over and dwell on the negative, or do I choose to accept it, learn from it and see how I can grow? See how I can help someone else that might be going through something similar. That’s beauty, and it’s a choice.
What do you reveal about yourself through art that you might be too uncomfortable or shy to verbalize?
Ha!! I grew up a person that wanted to hide. As shy as I could be, I spent my life perfecting the art of hiding away… in every sense I could. I believe that my art developed because I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t know how to express myself verbally, and it got worse as I grew older. At some point without realizing it, I started to rely on art to express the things I felt. To tell the stories that I couldn’t find the words for or was too shy to open up about. Ultimately, in my art, I reveal my vulnerability. My true self—my thoughts and feelings, my confusion, my heartache. I reveal myself. I’m just now understanding in recent years the whys and hows of my need to hide, and I’m becoming more and more comfortable with that vulnerability—and with being seen as well as heard.
If you had to pick one, is it more important that your artwork communicates an idea or an emotion?
An emotion. A feeling. An atmosphere of feeling. That’s where I communicate—in feelings.
What does it mean for you to get in touch with your emotions while creating art, and do you actually feel emotional in these moments?
As I said, in my process is where I gain more insight into who I am and what I want to say. There’s a lot of listening inpainting… listening to how I’m feeling. To what feels right or wrong, even in composition and color—I still learn about what it is I’m saying there. And yes, I do feel emotional as things come up, not just involving the theme or idea, but throughout the entire process. I feel stoked and inspired in the beginning as I start on something new, then I feel the struggle when it gets difficult. I feel the frustration of time and deadlines and overwhelmed when I have still so far to go. I feel emotional when the piece reveals something. I feel stoked again as I’m applying the final details and things are coming together. And I feel super proud and accomplished when the painting is finished. There I am with new insights of not only what I’ve been feeling, but also of my capabilities as an artist and as a sensitive, creative human being. That’s what it means to me to get in touch with my emotions while creating art.
What impressions do you hope to convey by bending scale with longer limbs?
Maybe the exaggerated limbs represent a feeling of being larger than life. A feeling of being able to reach and grow beyond what one might feel their capabilities limit.
Is your primary color palette starting to skew darker or brighter, and what might motivate the shift?
Both!! In this new body of work, my palette went from really bright brights—fluorescents paired with really dark contrasts. I wanted to illustrate life blossoming from darkness. That so much beauty and life can spark from or grow from a place that seems frightening or lifeless.
You were raised in a strong Christian home. Did you rebel against your upbringing at a certain age, and did this transition come through in your art?
No, I’m not a rebel. (Laughs.) I’ve had a great amount of disillusionment, growing up and going out into the world, trying to make sense of what I had been taught and where I belonged. That absolutely comes through in my work, especially in this new show.
In what ways does your art capture the innocence of youth, and in what ways does it capture the painful transition into adulthood and the more complicated view of the world that comes with it?
My art captures innocence in the characters I paint. Wide-eyed and maniacal, I try to capture the feeling of pure happiness and bliss as a kid. The elements around them or something that is taking place—like a little bunny eating a chocolate bunny in a dark corner—help me illustrate that complicated view of the world as one transitions into adulthood. That transition is difficult, physically as well as mentally, and tends to linger in a lot of ways. But there’s so much beauty from darkness, if you choose to look at it that way.
Disneyland looms large in the O.C. So many artists, particularly female artists like Camille Rose Garcia and Jasmine Becket-Griffith, create paintings that allude to the Disney universe. As an O.C. native, what do you see as the draw of Disney characters and recreating them with darker themes?
I think it has everything to do with the ideals and images that inspired me as a kid from Disney—which is a whole hell of a lot—and growing up to discover and realize the dark realities that are a large part of the Disney machine... and life in general. So for me, using that imagery from childhood as well as the pains and harshness I’ve experienced over the years, is simply my interpretation of life and the language I use to tell about it.
For a previous Corey Helford Gallery show, you painted a bottle with "Milk of the Poppy: Induces Unconsciousness." Assuming this is an opium reference, what prompted the piece, and what themes did you hope to convey?
Yes, my painting Be Good, For Goodness Sake was part of a group show at CHG called Product Displacement – An Exploration of the Invasion of Media and the Arts by Advertising. That piece is a story about two little fools who don’t have a full understanding of what’s being advertised. In this case, Milk of the Poppy is a reference to opium, from the HBO series Game of Thrones, and it will ultimately cost them their little lives. I loved that piece so much, it inspired my show title piece for Once Upon A Quiet Kingdom in which the story continues, except it’s much more personal.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.