Q&A: Joel Swanson and Adam Milner talk “Desirable Objects”

Cabinet group show with 99 artists, curated by Adam Milner Installation View

Adam Milner has a solo show at David B. Smith Gallery entitled Desirable Objects, which is open through July 22. Originally from the Denver area, Adam recently completed his MFA at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Joel Swanson, an artist and Assistant Professor in the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, asked him about the work. They talked about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, fossilization, and the unusual things Milner collects.


Joel Swanson: The title of your show Desirable Objects makes me think of that quote from Barbara Kruger, “Desire is present where pleasure is absent.” Connecting desire to the objects in your show creates an interesting dialogue between objects and pleasure, having and not having. How do you see desire functioning in your work?

Adam Milner: I have often heard galleries use the term “desirable objects” when talking about work they can show because they need things that people want to buy. I have always wrestled with this as someone who works socially, intimately, performatively. I agree with Kruger’s idea that desire is related to the absence of something, that to desire is to acknowledge a lack. In my work I think there are muddy shifts between subject and object, where things become people and people become things, and my longing or desire for connection play out in these objects which stand in for people. I think we all collect each other, which social media makes apparent but which happens in all sorts of ways and throughout time. Sometimes I think an art collector is trying to collect the artist, even in the way we say, “Is that a Joel Swanson?”, confusing the person with the thing. All of these ideas relate to desire. Is to desire something to objectify it?

Love Suite (Jenn’s braid, Carolina’s lock, Jazzmyn’s lock, Ellsworth Avenue snake, a buzzcut for Steven with contact, a buzzcut for Fred, drag queen lashes, mine I think, Ian’s cut 1633 days after that wedding canoe ride, a buzzcut for Jeromie, Beyonce’s tail, Kevin’s ornate gift, River but before we met, Brittany’s cut)
Bodily material in 14 artist’s Riker mounts
8.5 x 167 in. (21.59 x 424.18 cm)

JS: Your work is an exploration of relational and social structures where your art objects function as markers, tokens, and mementos. You blur the line between life and art with how personal your art is, which at times can be unsettling?

AM: I think of all the creative industries, art does the worst job at acknowledging love. Music, for instance, seems to be about love more often than not. Even most books have clear dedications. I draw from these sources as ways to give myself permission to be direct about my longing, affection, and care for someone. In many ways, this show is about attachment, about how bodies blur, and about how to save something is to separate it from the world. But it’s also very much about my boyfriend Fred, because that’s who consumes my thoughts, time, and energy. I think my work operates at two extreme points on a spectrum from hermetic to social. Half of the work is done very much alone: collecting, preserving, creating containers for stories or materials. The other half is done by spending time with people, caring for them, maybe losing them, always negotiating or exchanging with them. I think you’re pointing to an element of the work that is innately social and rooted in personal connection, both with the people in my life and the parts they leave behind. And then because I connect and cling to these objects so deeply, obsessing over them, there is a social element with the objects, too. We respond to each other, blur with each other. Jane Bennet describes how people who hoard talk about their stuff as if it is themselves (“This stuff is me”), and I can relate to that confusing blurring.

Weak Container
Adam and Fred’s blood on two cotton seersucker suits with display fixtures.
dimensions variable   2017

JS: When I look at Weak Container, which are two seersucker suits dyed with you and your boyfriend’s blood respectively, I can’t help but think of Felix Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers). What relationship do you see between his work and yours?

AM: Felix Gonzalez-Torres has long been an artist I admire and am absorbed by. The way his loved ones were his audience and how he used his intimately lived experience to address broader political and social problems resonates with me. I actually have been referring to the suits as imperfect lovers when talking about them casually, because they were dyed two weeks apart. Because the blood is active and slowly oxidizing, they are slightly different shades of mauve. The blood does what it wants, despite my attempts to control it, so each suit has different gradations and quirks. Felix’s perfect lover clocks, touching at one perfect tangent in the way circles do, the tiniest point of contact, but synced up, is such a beautiful and profound image for me. Yet I can’t relate to it personally, in the sense that I have never felt that close sync-up with someone. For me, love and relationships are messy, difficult, and complicated in a way that the clocks don’t show, but maybe that’s why the Untitled (Perfect Lovers) that I’ve seen are always about a half a second off from each other. For me, that half a second difference is the punctum, the real part.

JS: Language plays a subtle but significant role in your show. From Baby Archive to the use of proper names in titles, how do you think about language within your work?

AM: I like that I can collect a single word repeated endlessly throughout love songs, these “babies,” as a way to reflect and ruminate on this strange term of endearment. That language can be collected and saved in the same way as hair or flowers is helpful, because sometimes the thing I’m interested in archiving and presenting isn’t physical. The use of people’s names in the work has become increasingly important, but that’s a different matter. To use bodies is innately political, and it’s a dangerous practice to objectify people by looking at their bodies as material. That’s why I name everyone and give some backstory, because that narrative is key to keeping things human, acknowledging life and relationships.

Body Fossils
Pressed flowers and Adam’s eyelashes on embossed paper in artist’s frames
23 x 31 in. (58.4 x 78.7 cm)

JS: Your choice to put the embossed Body Fossil works into these painted archways is interesting as they create these faux domestic alcoves. What role does depth and dimensionality play in your show?

AM: Closeness and depth are so subjective. Sometimes the moon feels closer than someone I live with. I like those painted archways because as sculpture niches or archways one could walk through, they imply a depth that isn’t there, allowing the embossed cradles for the artifacts to feel especially deep. I like that you think of them as domestic elements since so much of my work centers in the bedroom or home in general. I think of them more as classical sculpture niches, which for me, end up reaffirming the flower petals’ and eyelashes’ positions as objects on display. The painted wall, the embossed paper, and the carefully customized frame are all just different layers of support on which to exhibit these delicate traces, these quiet bodily artifacts.

Let’s build a house but not here
Bambi’s nail and Josh’s gold chain in NASA Lunar Regolith Brick (JSC-1A lunar soil simulant and bovine serum albumin)
2.5 x 19.37 x 8.98 in. (6.45 x 19.37 x 8.98 cm)

JS: The Lunar Regolith Brick works evoke fossilization, history, but also technology. Can you talk about your choice to work with this material, and the moon as a symbol of desire?

AM: Those works were made in collaboration with a material engineer working with NASA to develop a way to make concrete on the moon. By embedding these really personal, bodily artifacts from people I’ve been close with or desired closeness with (a drag queen’s fingernail, my boyfriend’s old nose ring), I acknowledge the romance and poetry of that idea. The works are called “Let’s build a house but not here” and conform to standard building brick dimensions because if I could imagine the perfect home it probably would not be on this planet. Though the reality of this technology is tied up in harsh realities of devastation here and a mentality of conquest, the moon remains the most potent symbol of longing for me. It’s always right there as a reminder of its being out of reach. World leaders, massive corporations, anyone in power wants dominion over that sphere to show their dominance, but it’s also desirable to any romantic I know. In a show that accepts and embraces difference through the blurring of categories (human and non-human, real and artificial, masculine and feminine, safe and vulnerable, frozen and active), I have to wonder, will there ever be drag queens on the moon? Can someone be queer up there? The reality of a life on the moon, as poetic as it is to me, would be one of sameness: uniforms, procedures, regiment. So the longing and desire remains.

Group show with 99 artists, curated by Adam Milner
Partial Installation View.

JS: For Cabinet, how did you go about determining which pieces to include and how to display them? And how does showing the work of other artists connect to your larger artistic practice?

AM: I’ve long been interested in histories of the museum as ways to show how we present things, how we keep them safe, how and why we give them value. Museums are my favorite places in the world but they can also feel like mausoleums and it’s well known that they borrow from prison design. I wonder about the norms of gallery and museum display that we take for granted (the white walls, the labels next to each item, what information is shared, how many people pass through and how, how many artists are involved), and I wanted to make a show that celebrated small works while being very careful about how those works were shared. They are on floor-to-ceiling beige shelves, only three people can enter at a time, and viewers ask an attendant about titles, materials, dates, and artists. There is some intimacy here. I included artists who already touch on ideas of the souvenir, memento, artifact, maquette, product, or collecting and display in general, and I chose works that confused me a bit, works with some mystery. Many of the works were made for this show specifically, but they’re works that normally wouldn’t share a show; there are artists with a wide range of careers working in vastly different ways, and here they become the context for each other. In terms of my larger practice, this show shares an interest in the quiet or minute, and has that same hidden rigor, a labor of love I think, which accumulates into something larger. It’s a kind of collection that breaks down normal containers or boundaries, like much of the work in Desirable Objects does. But I don’t view this as a work of mine. It is a group show, and I curate as a way to share work I think is important. I learn a great deal by working with other artists and delving into their practices. Cabinet shows a hundred ways to think, a hundred ways to be in the world.




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