Critics’ Picks

View of “Brown: Videos from the Black Show,” 2019–20. Photo: Zak Kelley.

View of “Brown: Videos from the Black Show,” 2019–20. Photo: Zak Kelley.

Los Angeles

Rodney McMillian

The Underground Museum
3508 W. Washington Blvd
October 5, 2019–February 16, 2020

Brown fabric is draped over the walls at the Underground Museum for Rodney McMillian’s exhibition “Brown: Videos from the Black Show,” rendering the interior melancholic and enigmatic. A Migration Tale, 2014–15, is the first of the five videos on view. Here, McMillian is shown adorned in a long black cloak and a silver mask. He wanders from a New York subway car, where a Black woman is reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), to an outdoor drum circle, where elders are dressed in white. The artist’s character operates as a witness, an ancestral spirit accompanying the Black and mortal as they search for something greater.

Nearby, Preacher Man, 2015, plays on a small television in front of two mahogany pews. McMillian appears in a moonlit swamp, illuminated as if a divine beacon, evoking the clandestine preaching of Nat Turner. In an ironically delightful manner, the artist, dressed in his Sunday best, declares: “They’re free when they’re dead and at peace. . . . So when the United States be talking about peace, it’s talking about death.” Although “they” are identified only as “people” in this paraphrase of Sun Ra, their conditions reflect those of the oppressed.

The histories of Black lives and Black deaths are juxtaposed most disarmingly in Storytime in Dockery, 2015. The artist, sweating profusely, sits down on a chair in a derelict house on Dockery Farms, a former sawmill and cotton plantation in Mississippi. He begins reading A. A. Milne’s “Eeyore Loses a Tail,” presumably to a group of children outside the frame. Told on the site of a factory that transformed humans into objects, the story becomes a metaphor for the laborers’ loss of humanity. Could their humanity ever be retrieved, as Pooh found Eeyore's tail? How is a Black person’s psyche affected by the ongoing eulogizing of past and future lives? A cap to the show, this work unequivocally proclaims social death.