Rodney McMillian has three shows running concurrently and they couldn’t be more different from one another. The Los Angeles artist—whose work for many years has involved found objects, painted bed sheets, sculpture, and video—presents a body of work that travels across many themes and curatorial visions, all of which are carefully, deliberately chosen for their particular context: the art institution.
Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1, and previously at the Aspen Art Museum, presents twelve paintings on bed sheets and a three-minute video. The paintings—reminiscent of Al Loving’s torn canvas paintings or Sam Gilliam’s drape paintings, (both African American artists, I might add)—are sheets splattered with heavy doses of acrylic paint. For how beautiful the paintings are, executed with great dexterity of composition and color, there is also a great sense of violence and atrocity in each piece. The impasto of the paint falling to the floor (almost like bloodshed) and the sheer weight of it against the fabric connote an action that is both brutal and fierce: the erasure of the human body. And while the bed sheets also suggest a certain exuberance towards bodily passions, the reference to the “landscape” (determined by the title of the exhibition) undermines this and substantiates the active removal of human bodies to create a black hole. As a result, there is a certain anxiety felt from the implied presence of bodies and their visible absence.
Even the video Untitled (2005), which shows an unrecognizable figure underneath a white bed sheet, violently gesticulating and rummaging around like an angry ghost, is both beautiful and disturbing. As a bright light shines on the figure, the white sheet takes on different hues of purple, blue, orange, and yellow, as if one were seeing an exploding chaotic sunset.
The result is an alluring exhibition of McMillian’s abstractions. But, surprisingly, neither wall text nor press release mention that the artist is African American. This is not to say that it should be a requirement, but the choice seems odd if not intentional, judging by the very fact that McMillian’s work is so entwined with ideas of race and black identity politics. This act of omission is quite implicit in meaning, and is no doubt claiming that the work exhibited is not about race or blackness (and perhaps should be read as such), but Landscape Paintings noticeably stands in contrast with the two other shows on view that so clearly address these subjects.
Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street at the Studio Museum in Harlem, is more straightforward in its curatorial approach. A survey of McMillian’s paintings, found objects, sculptures, and video, the exhibition presents a strong note of the artist’s sagacious aesthetic, with a focus on the political and the myth of “Main Street” in regards to African American culture and class. The exhibition features three videos that deal quite explicitly with race and politics in the US.
In Dummies on a Porch Swing (2012), for example, McMillian introduces two small dummies swinging on a porch. Although the dummies are somewhat static, they’re posed to give the impression of being in conversation with each other. This is then pronounced by the accompanying recording of an interview between Alexander Lamis and the notorious Republican strategist for the Regan administration, Harvey “Lee” Atwater. Atwater says, “The South is Reagan’s to lose,” claiming that Reagan need only speak about states’ rights and tax cuts to get the votes of racists in the South. This is in juxtaposition to Neshoba County Fair (2012), a video of a ventriloquist’s dummy lip-syncing to Reagan’s speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi during his 1980 presidential campaign. The third video, Untitled (The Great Society) I (2006), shows McMillian reenacting President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 speech, “The Great Society.”
Similar to Landscape Paintings, Views of Main Street plays on the presence and absence of the figure. In Untitled (2009) and Couch (2012), the figure is nowhere to be found, but the manipulations of these domestic objects by human hands is all too apparent: the decimated IKEA lounge chair, pierced by a protruding eight-foot-long black cylinder, and a sawed-in-half couch cemented back together. Moreover, the visual presence of the black figure, represented by the artist himself, in juxtaposition to the cast of characters (white men) that are portrayed by dummies, is paramount to re-humanizing the black figure within McMillian’s aesthetic construct. In the role of LBJ, he states, “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.” The consequence of having a black man recite these words is both empowering and tragic for knowing far too well how the country has veered away from this message—but all the more poignant considering the visibility of McMillian’s blackness.
Finally, The Black Show at ICA in Philadelphia presents some of McMillian’s most exciting works to date: four videos, sculpture, painting, and a large wall installation made from black latex and paper. The exhibition title is almost laugh-out-loud explicit, yet profound in the way the artist deals with the notion of blackness through the introspective lens of his own psychological investigations. The work is not only political, but also philosophical, surreal, lyrical, abstract, and conceptual, bordering on sci-fi imagery reminiscent of the visions of the great writer, Octavia Butler. In the video Preacher Man (2015), the artist dressed in a suit walks into a field at night and sits in a chair reciting words from the musician Sun Ra. “When the US be talking about peace, they’re really talking about death” he says through the clatter of crickets in the ominous darkness. The feeling of disenchantment, with respect to American politics, is palpable, as the phrase duly notes that peace in the US is predicated on the obliteration or incarceration of black bodies, as if McMillian speaks from experience; as if he’s speaking to us from the grave.
Although the running thread between all three shows is the presence (or lack thereof) of the black body, every exhibition stands on its own . Each institution presents an exhibition that surely takes on different aspects of McMillian’s versatile practice, some taking bigger curatorial risks depending on the biases and implicit political and social status of the institution. As if to mimic their decidedly disparate curatorial motivations, the exhibitions are not all explicitly in dialogue with each other, but each do succeed in varying degrees at augmenting ideas around race and its visibility. This not to say that the curatorial approaches conflict, but that they are inherently directed by the art institutions the exhibitions inhabit and even more, by the neighborhoods where the institutions live.
As McMillian explains to Alex Fialho in a piece published in Artforum in April of this year, “[a]t the Studio Museum, the works have a materialist-based, nuts-and-bolts pragmatism, but ‘The Black Show’ deals with how one lives within that reality.” Working with Naima J. Keith, formerly the Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, now the Deputy Director of the California African American Art Museum, McMillian dutifully uses Harlem, and more specifically 125th Street, as a foil for the misrepresentation of African American culture within America’s “Main Street” population. The major thoroughfare becomes an important factor in reinterpreting the objects displayed in the exhibition. Of course, there are logistical issues that come into play when looking at the curatorial exigencies of a traveling exhibition (e.g. Landscape paintings), but from an outsider’s perspective each exhibition objectively brings up its own set of assumptions: a safe and whitewashed exhibition in a gentrified neighborhood in Queens, a challenging exhibition in the historic black neighborhood of Harlem about race and politics, and a more experimental investigation on ideas of blackness and black identity both now and in the future in Philadelphia, historically a predominantly African American city.
On the other hand, the one element that successfully transcends the locality of these shows, creating a compelling connection between all three exhibitions, is the theme of violence. In a beckoning: We are not who we think we are (2015), a 5-minute video presented at the ICA, depicts McMillian’s famed figure dressed all in black wearing the mask of Ultraman, a 1960s Japanese superhero. Much like the video Untitled at PS1, the figure gesticulates and stomps on the ground, but here is blanketed in darkness. It is only through the flashing of a light do we get glimpses of the dark figure. Similar to Untitled, the figure in a beckoning speaks to the frustrations of being unseen and to disenfranchisement. It exemplifies the angst felt by those who are deprived of agency and visibility, an experience that is all too common and shared by society’s other, in this case, the black figure.
This other, what critical theorist Frantz Fanon describes as the colonized or indigenous people, is portrayed within this context of violence. For Fanon, violence manifests itself through the “psycho-affective” struggle of the act of decolonization. McMillian represents, in his work, the physical and psychological violence that assuredly lives in all black bodies in the US. It is the artistic expression of the other’s ability to fight oppression and find human agency. As a result, McMillian not only presents a revision of history through a black lens, but also a violent repositioning of events into the future, as to if remind us or portend of America’s failure to stay true to a Great Decolonized Society.
Landscape Paintings is on view at MoMA PS1, New York through August 29, 2016. Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street is on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York through June 26, 2016. The Black Show is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia through August 14, 2016.