Rodney McMillian is having a moment. The artist currently has three solo exhibitions on view at East Coast museums: “Views of Main Street” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, through June 26, 2016; “The Black Show” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, through August 14, 2016; and “Landscape Paintings” at MoMA PS1, through August 29, 2016. McMillian’s artworks—made from “postconsumer objects” like junked chairs, sofas, and wall-to-wall carpeting—reflect the myriad lived experiences of class and capital. And McMillian’s performance-based videos often recast significant events—from Nat Turner’s slave rebellion to Ronald Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair speech—as playful, disconcerting parodies that upend essentialist readings of history. Here, McMillian discusses his trio of concurrent exhibitions.
THE EXHIBITION AT THE STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM is a survey that focuses on the politics of the domestic, which speaks to what one does for shelter and comfort within specific sites. With the exhibition title “Views of Main Street,” I was thinking about how “Main Street,” as opposed to Wall Street, is a phrase that is used in politics that’s supposed to speak to middle-class America. Yet whenever I’ve heard that phrase, I never think of it as addressing me as an African American. There are many different Main Streets in this country, and I wanted to contextualize this work within an African American Main Street, like 125th Street in Harlem, a major thoroughfare. The exhibition includes carpet paintings, chair sculptures, and other kinds of artworks made from postconsumer objects: goods that are designed, produced, sold, used until they’re thoroughly worn, then discarded. Things generated for a particular class of people—like high-end knockoffs, for instance. I choose these materials because of what they signify: a home. Postconsumer objects also imply an absented body. I want to insert them into different economies—relocating them from a pedestrian location to a studio, gallery, or institutional space.
I created most of the work in the “The Black Show” at the ICA Philadelphia while thinking about the alternative histories and social constructs that are offered through science-fiction. I’ve been really hooked on Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and others, in thinking about the black body as a kind of portal, or black hole. Philosopher Michele Faith Wallace speaks of this space as a site of potentiality as opposed to a space of absence or negation. There are a lot of performative videos in this show, with all kinds of personae and characters. At 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. How does one construct one’s sense of self and place in this reality? Are there other possibilities of living within these constructs?
“Landscape Paintings” at MoMA PS1 includes paintings on bedsheets, which offer a different way of looking at American landscape paintings. Paintings by Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Cole are all so aspirational, colonialist. My paintings are about the real in the sense that they are actual surfaces where we sleep, make love, relax, read books, nurse children, live life, and sometimes die. There’s a visceral quality to the work, a suggestion of body parts, but there are also allusions to space, the cosmos. I view these paintings as the landscapes not depicted within Bill Traylor’s work.
The three shows present different modes of engagement within my practice. I’ll work with still life painting in relation to a postconsumer object, which might relate to a video I’m doing. I often think about the histories each medium carries, and how to navigate through them and not “define” myself by them. The strategies I employ with disparate materials and modes of working have been about locating the content of the work, not me.