Rodney McMillian: Waging an Artist's War

By Hunter, Becky Huff | Sculpture, January/February 2017 | Go to article overview

Rodney McMillian: Waging an Artist's War


Hunter, Becky Huff, Sculpture


It has been a big year for Rodney McMillian. In a rare achievement for any artist, three major East Coast institutions mounted simultaneous solo exhibitions of his multimedia works, spanning more than a decade. At the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia, and MoMA PS1 in New York, McMillian's shows laid bare the complexities of racial violence and injustice in the United States. As McMillian told Artforum, the exhibitions presented "different modes of engagement within my practice" across forms, conceptual strategies, and themes - including the class-based politics of domesticity, the liberating construction of identity in science fiction, and the bloodied history of the American landscape.1

In conversation with McMillian, curator Heidi Zuckerman described his body of work as fulfilling the "intention to communicate some of the complexities of things that are taken for granted if people do not ask questions"2 This statement parallels lames Baldwin's oft-quoted imperative, a rallying cry for creative practitioners: "The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides"3 Baldwin was talking specifically about the hidden, oppressive social structures that artists like McMillian so thoroughly expose. Baldwin's great hope, writing in 1962, was of the U.S. finally "moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste"4 While progress has been made in the past half-century, race, class, and gender are still major social problems that demand artistic interrogation.

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, McMillian's sculptures and wall-based works constructed from broken furniture, smashed appliances, and shoddy textiles materialized an environment of domestic distress. These ironic "Views of Main Street" served as a powerful context for video works that took direct verbal aim at problematic government policies. Together, the works in this exhibition (March 24-June 26, 2016) exposed individual and community struggles hidden behind a bucolic vision of the American dream and exacerbated by national economic directives that hit poor, often African American, populations the hardest. Untitled (2011) is a huge maroon carpet crusted with trodden-in dirt and cut into the shape of a floor plan, probably of a low-income studio apartment. A long rip in the fabric has been sewn up. It smells dank, indicating its origins in a neglected building, and its patterns of wear map out the ghosts of its former home. A single clean rectangle preserves its velvety pile, perhaps protected at one time by a corner couch or refrigerator; the worn pathway is an index of limited human movement. Reoriented onto the wall, the carpet juts out onto the floor like a welcome mat. Like a similarly scaled, cracked and peeling linoleum work (Untitled, 2006), it speaks to architectural space as social space. Though absent, this space is palpable - messy, smelly, aged, never purely theoretical or abstract.

Four works made from found seating reinforced the sense of domestic insecurity, even danger. Untitled (2009) violates a near-archetypal piece of middle-class furniture: a birch-framed, beige-upholstered Ikea Poäng armchair. A slickly painted, rough, black column penetrates the seat of the chair, leaving a dark stain reminiscent of forensic evidence surrounding a wound. While the column is made from cardboard, it looks heavy and irremovable. The absence of a seated person brings to mind a near-miss. This work is often read as representing sexualized violence, but the tableau feels somber in its stillness; the scene is inert and unmovable, perhaps capturing the sense of inevitable defeat wrought by poverty. Though McMillian appropriated his own Ikea chair for this work and often uses his body in performances, he does not intend a personal expression or claim autobiographical significance. "Th[e]se works have nothing to do with my life, but they have to do with certain ideas within culture that relate to the body," he explains. …

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