Visual Arts - Darkness and light

Love Among the Dissociated reflects the two worlds of artist Anthony Milella

Despite its ungainly title, Love Among the Dissociated — which sounds like Jay McInerney’s latest tale of Manhattan nightclubbers — has an exceptionally sly and ethereal touch.

Rarely have whimsy and gloom collided as exquisitely as they do in the paintings and drawings by Anthony Milella, which have some of the confectionery sweetness of Fragonard and the macabre wit of Edward Gorey. It is no wonder the show of Milella’s work on display at VSA Arts of Georgia’s Arts for All Gallery was curated by local artist Cornel Rubino. His own drawing style shares a slightly jaded romanticism and retro charm with Milella.

Milella, who studied art at Parsons School of Design and in Florence, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 28. That condition proves both incidental and crucial in this paradoxical show. On one hand, these pictures of gloomy girls in Halloween witch costumes or arranged in trios of angelic loveliness are so expressive and odd on their own terms, the artist’s mental illness seems unimportant. But there is a sly, cynical tone and a nostalgia in the work that seems rooted in the altered vision of the world that someone who’s experienced an illness or dramatic life event might have.

The work in Love features small family groups gathered around kitchen tables, trios of pretty girls and individuals set against moody, expressionistic backdrops ornamented with skulls and serpents, which seem to reflect something of these figures’ internal states of mind.

Milella’s people, sipping from cups of tea or wearing the cropped hair and somber expressions of the Sprockets set are laced with ghoulishness emphasized by their almond-shaped eyes, wall-eyed expressions and the squat, oval shapes of their heads. Like Margaret Keane’s big-eyed kiddies, Milella’s subjects’ eyes convey insecurity, innocence, fear and apprehension. In other images, people sport huge round eye-holes like two black pits that give them an appearance of being naive or delusional. Wafts of trauma and an ironic response to that trauma come off work that simmers with the compacted emotions of teenage novels and dark family history.

The artist often manages to accommodate both humor and the sinister in typically witty titles like “The Validity of Turtlenecks in the Occult,” a family portrait of sickly looking Alastair Crowley types with demonically peaked eyebrows and pink eyes, or in “At the Hair Studio,” which looks like a beauty parlor invaded by ghouls with gray and mauve-smeared faces.

The work ranges from the delightfully color-soaked, as in paper and tempera pieces where berries and mauves and mossy greens fill the frame, to color schemes best described as “bruised,” featuring an array of tones that recall the life stages of wounded skin — eggplant ripening into avocado into a sickly yellow.

“Lilac Widow” is a typically goth venture in shades of purple and black, featuring a forlorn woman in black pearls and empire waist dress gripping a nosegay of flowers. The occasions Milella captures are generally rendered in the most somber way, like the singularly creepy “Lenten Festivity” in which a pig-faced girl with a skull balloon stands before a church.

An artist of astounding emotional range, Milella leap-frogs from dark and foreboding to peachy and keen in portraits of young girls that suggest Madeleine and Heidi and other storybook heroines that counterbalance the darker works. In his most bare bones but equally gorgeous, fanciful pieces, Milella has executed drawings of the girliest girls with little delicate wisps of mouths and sweet expressions, their bodies posed with the precision of ballerinas. In other drawings, the artist depicts himself, in signature turtleneck and glasses, looking pensive and out of sorts.

The common tone that links much of the work is an intense, evocative sense of nostalgia and comfort. References to pom-pom capped hats, fuzzy slippers, tea and cat’s cradle situate many of these paintings and drawings in some cozy childhood Neverland reiterated by photos or paintings within the paintings of the artist as a boy. In one small series of work, Milella draws girls wearing retro daisy sweaters and ’60s attire, expressing their devotion to Mary Quant, that era’s fashion queen of white lipstick and Twiggy eyeliner. Milella’s drawings are often infectiously sunny and appealing with their beautiful simplicity, reminiscent of drawings by Picasso and Chagall.

The delight in Dissociated is its ability to blend seemingly incompatible elements, to find the perversity in sweetness or a touch of humor in the macabre. Milella’s work oozes charm and originality and makes one aware of a world of equal parts innocence and darkness and of an artist capable of deftly conveying both extremes.

Love Among the Dissociated runs through May 10 at Arts for All Gallery, 57 Forsyth St. Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-221-1270.