Darby Milbrath

With fervour for longer and warmer days, Pangée welcomed springtime with a solo exhibition by the Toronto-based artist Darby Milbrath. Filling its walls with large canvases covered in intense oranges, vibrant reds and deep indigos, Pangée enveloped its elegant gallery—a space that used to house the Czech consulate—in the embrace of Milbrath’s estival palette. “Aquarian Music” is the artist’s third solo exhibition with the gallery since 2018. For the occasion, Milbrath prepared an ode to the generative power of the sun and its magical ability to awaken life from the frozen ground.

As a self-taught painter, Darby Milbrath has developed an idiosyncratic painting expression, one characterized by loose lines and an energetic use of colour. This new body of work is no different. Completed over a residency at Casa Balandra on the island of Mallorca in the fall of 2021, the paintings of “Aquarian Music” carry the mark of the Spanish landscape, with gleaming yellows, roasting terracottas and deep greens. There is a sense that these works are the direct expression of inhabiting the landscape in which they were produced, carrying the sensory memento of the heat of the glowing sun, the stinging taste of sea salt or perhaps the scent of orange blossoms.

Darby Milbrath, Sunday, 2021, oil on canvas, 27.9 × 35.6 centimetres. Photo: Gregory McCarthy. Courtesy Pangée, Montreal.

The title of the show, “Aquarian Music,” refers to the figure of the Water Bearer—one often seen as a symbol of healing and hope and a recurring image for optimists or idealists. The Zodiac sign is also present in Fariha Róisín’s poem titled “Age of Aquarius” that accompanies the exhibition. Interestingly, it does not correspond to the period during which the exhibition was presented at Pangée but immediately before (January 20 to February 18)—in other words, at the dusk of winter. Upon winter’s recession, as the warm sun returns, it heats the air and the seas and yields the notorious April showers that bring May flowers. Milbrath suggests, via her choice of title, that there is a rhythm to this atmospheric dance. In fact, the exhibition text tells the visitor the artist painted the works while listening to the minimalist melodies of the German composer Hans Otte.

Fariha Róisín’s text is an ally to this suite of paintings. The author’s lexical field portrays the chromatic experience of walking through the exhibition as she had anticipated the array of colours: citrine, cadmium, egg yolk, terracotta, indigo, crimson, etc. Róisín’s rhythmic combination of words further emphasizes the melodic movement of Milbrath’s brush strokes. The poem outlines an ardent longing for human connection and perhaps even a seasonal appetite for love. In Milbrath’s paintings, the figures interlace amid a floral constellation, dancing with sunflowers and musing beside a cascading bouquet. In another piece, a character, enthralled with delight, is eating a fruit in front of a monochromatic forest. All of them are caught midaction, engrossed in a deeply sensory activity and oblivious to the extraordinary natural phenomena that occur around them.

Darby Milbrath, installation view, “Aquarian Music,” Pangée, Montreal, 2022. Photo: Jean-Michael Seminaro. Courtesy Pangée, Montreal. Left to right: Solstice, 2022, oil on canvas, 162.6 × 132 centimetres. Summer Evening Falling, 2022, oil on canvas, 243.8 × 182.9 centimetres. Aquarian Music, 2022, oil on canvas, 157.5 × 111.8 centimetres.

Unsurprisingly, Darby Milbrath has a background as a dancer. Dancing seems to have influenced more than her choice of titles, her proclivity for music or the exuberance of her brush strokes. It also translates, in her pictorial practice, into an acute interest in the form of the figure as a vessel for the subconscious mind. The scenes she paints never claim to represent any real images or specific vista. Rather, they exist as suspended memories, intuitive feelings, or spiritual meditations.

In this brightly hued waltz, “Aquarian Music” is a love letter to the cyclical motion of the seasons and the unfaltering return of the sun. The flowers are painted as gleaming fireworks, bursting with light and intensity. Milbrath’s universe is like a cocoon, warm and serene, a splendid place to indulge in fantasy. This is a hopeful exhibition, one that announces the imminent physical encounter of skin and sun and the guarantee of regrowth, regeneration and love. ❚

“Aquarian Music” was exhibited at Pangée, Montreal, from March 19, 2022, to May 14, 2022.

Anaïs Castro is a curator and writer based in New York. Over the past years, she has curated exhibitions and projects in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and China.