Rodney McMillian

MoMA PS1, New York, The Studio Museum, Harlem, and ICA Philadelphia 

In three concurrent museum shows that feature more than a decade’s worth of painting, textile, sculpture and video work, Rodney McMillian examines what happens between the sheets, in that intimate space where the sexual, potentially violent commingling of bodies reveals the deeper parts of the human psyche and our broader social fabric. 

For ‘Landscape Paintings’ at MoMA PS1, McMillian has used bedsheets to frame the body as a kind of landscape. The marbleized red and purple paint layered atop the sheets’ surfaces could depict aerial views of muddy river deltas, bright with algal blooms, or the topography of scar tissue. Sticky globs of latex house paint pile up on these makeshift canvases like shed harlequin costumes, and in some works – such as Site #3: Stumps in Plain Sight (2008–14) – they take on unnervingly human profiles. Many of their names make these allusions plain: fleshy pink paint extrudes from the surface of Untitled (Tongue) (2014), lapping the gallery floor. The black lips of A Mouth: and the Galaxy Within (2012–15), speckled with bright colours, cast the body as a universe of spoken language or a constellation of physical pleasure. Sweat, blood, cum, tears: sheets claim the fluids that affirm our biological humanity. Here, they pulse in dozens of exuberant hues, like the joyous secretions of a waking dream. 

Rodney McMillian, Untitled (target), 2012, installation view at ICA Philadelphia. Courtesy: the artist and ICA Philadelphia

Rodney McMillian, Untitled (target), 2012, installation view at ICA Philadelphia. Courtesy: the artist and ICA Philadelphia

Rodney McMillian, Untitled (target), 2012, installation view at ICA Philadelphia. Courtesy: the artist and ICA Philadelphia

McMillian’s ‘Landscape Paintings’ mark a preoccupation that has long defined his career. An iconic textile piece opens ‘The Black Show’ at ICA Philadelphia: the glistening black vinyl surface of Untitled (Target) (2012), visibly stitched with white string, greets viewers with its gaping maw not unlike a Lee Bontecou sculpture. A star of flayed fabric radiates from this orifice like flesh flapping at a wound. Black vinyl’s appeal is multivalent: it is cheap yet glossy, both nightclub decor and sexual fetish wear. McMillian provokes with abstraction, using bodily materials to evoke the violent and erotic charge of our own skins. 

rodney_mcmillian_untitled_tongue_2014_latex_on_bed_sheet_2.5_x_1.8_m._courtesy_the_artist_and_susanne_vielmetter_los_angeles_projects

Rodney McMillian, Untitled (tongue), 2014, latex on bed sheet, 2.5 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Rodney McMillian, Untitled (tongue), 2014, latex on bed sheet, 2.5 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

‘Views of Main Street’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem features readymades hauled from Los Angeles curbsides – household furniture left to rot in poverty-stricken streets. (The objects recall Noah Purifoy’s works of reclaimed rubble from the 1965 Watts riots.) Chair (2003) splays its woolly guts onto the gallery floor. The icebox door of Untitled (Refrigerator) (2009) bears a gaping hole like evidence of domestic abuse. McMillian has sutured his sawed, battered Couch (2012) with a strip of cement, as if to suggest that nothing can truly mend  a broken home. These ‘street views’ are also intimate artefacts of lives ravaged by home foreclosures, unemployment and urban neglect – forlorn forms bringing to mind the disproportionate poverty and incarceration rates of black men in the US, and families torn apart. 

rodney_mcmillian_chair_2003_chair_84_x_97_x_84_cm._courtesy_collection_of_gaby_and_wilhelm_schurmann_herzogenrath_berlin

Rodney McMillian, chair, 2003, chair, 84 × 97 × 84 cm. Courtesy: collection of Gaby and Wilhelm Schürmann, Herzogenrath, Berlin

Rodney McMillian, chair, 2003, chair, 84 × 97 × 84 cm. Courtesy: collection of Gaby and Wilhelm Schürmann, Herzogenrath, Berlin

In his move from textiles and sculptures to video works, McMillian shifts from using materials that invoke absent bodies to using his own body as material. In Shelter (Crawl) (2015) at the ICA, a response to William Pope.L’s Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), McMillian crawls on his stomach through a South Carolina field while croaking the chorus from The Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Gimme Shelter’ (1969). At the Studio Museum, the darkly comic Neshoba County Fair (2012) uses puppets to restage an infamous ‘race-baiting’ speech Ronald Reagan gave in Mississippi in 1980. Here, Reagan is a soul-singing velociraptor, silver-tongued and poison-clawed, fomenting racism for political gain. 

rodney_mcmillian_shelter_crawl_2015_installation_view._courtesy_the_artist_and_ica_philadephia

Rodney McMillian, Shelter (Crawl), 2015, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and ICA Philadephia

Rodney McMillian, Shelter (Crawl), 2015, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and ICA Philadephia

McMillian endows simple objects with affecting political resonances. This material relationship surfaces most poignantly in a single video at PS1 (Untitled, 2005): in it, McMillian, lit by a spotlight, struggles to escape from beneath a large white bedsheet. His frenetic movements could be a dance or a more sinister struggle; the fabric resembles both a child’s Halloween costume and the white garb of the Ku Klux Klan. Sheets smother and conceal, but they also comfort; they mask hatred and swaddle love. Cast-off bedding can carry marks from tender trysts or violent recriminations. McMillian indulges this paradox with such sensual energy that his textiles assume the tactility of human skin: beaten and bruised, kissed and caressed. There is anger in them, but there is hope too.

Evan Moffitt is assistant editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. 

Issue 181

First published in Issue 181

September 2016

Most Read

Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017