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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
First published in Issue 181