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Rodney McMillian, untitled, 2010, vinyl, thread, 14' x 27' 6" x 2'. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

THE YAWNING, CAVELIKE BLACK SPACE was both empty and full. What was it empty of? What filled it? When I stood before Rodney McMillian’s “room” installation, the first he has made, last year at Susanne Vielmetter in Culver City, I remember I had already been suggested toward an image of bodily passage by a giant, stitched-together relief “painting” of a fractured asshole in the main gallery. The untitled installation before me was composed of patches of vinyl, subtly graded in shades of black and textured surface to form a supple mosaic, roughly but deliberately hand-sewn in thick black thread, covering a second gallery’s three walls, ceiling, and floor. The lights trained into it created areas of shine alternating with dim zones where vinyl drooped or stretched to shadow. One was not supposed to walk in but only to look, and I remember feeling relieved that one could stop, thinking that pause and reflection might be part of what filled or fled McMillian’s interior. Have no doubt, the room was a figure of interiority, almost romantically so—a dark inside space, a depth to meditate on, almost as a display. From where I stood, this seemed constituted as process, as if the room’s contours, possibly once smooth, had by some crisis or catastrophe been shredded to pieces, and what was shown here was an aftermath or living-through: literally, a stitching back together. I remember thinking it was a lot of skin.

If McMillian’s work called forth an installation language of post-Minimalism, its environmental scale, loaded monochrome, and soft or bent geometry seemed more attuned to that movement’s feminist side: the affect and materiality of Eva Hesse or Yayoi Kusama rather than the phenomenology of Robert Morris or James Turrell. The room looked labor-intensive in multiple ways, from the extensive handiwork of cutting and sewing, to the puzzle-piece composition of vinyl patches, to the trussing and rigging that kept the surface from sagging or collapsing entirely. An analogy between material labor and the labor of subjectivity was superabundant, as if the transformation of material were also a transformation of self or psyche. I began to think of David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue, 2002, which also presented a vast and “empty” black space, albeit one populated by penlight-wielding viewers, as a representation of self-negotiation and social process. Was McMillian’s room a similar kind of theater or stage?

It is said that Miles Davis confounded a hunger for bop expressionism when he played with his back turned to his audiences early in his career. But in his tailored suits and coolest composure, reticence and extravagance would become axes of an exquisitely sovereign persona. Perhaps Davis is not exactly the right association for the contrast of withholding and outness I felt that McMillian’s room performed—too early on a continuum. Given the rectum hanging in the first gallery and the juicy strangeness of the exhibition’s title, “Succulent,” the work appeared more strongly to be channeling a 1970s funk dimension: the postapocalyptic attention to orifice and opening found in George Clinton, Richard Pryor, or Samuel Delany, an expression of self that was defiant, pungent, and wet. Though the black room might have been “personal,” or simply McMillian’s “own thing”—as any work of such abstraction might be—a voicing of this history of bottoms, mouths, and minds seemed clearly audible.

The room was becoming dense and fast. I remember thinking that the associations it compelled for me—associations of subjectivity, blackness, cultural history, and politics—owed to formal and material decisions in the work rather than to any explicit reference or subject matter. This thought was upending, for it contained a recognition of racialized discrepancy in the ways that attributes of making and form have so often been considered “traditional” in the wake of Conceptual art’s critique of the object. Even as the interiority and cultural narratives mobilized by the black room are part of a tradition, they did not square with the boundedness and conservatism that “traditional” implies. McMillian’s object made the judgment of these implications particular. It suggested new discursive needs. Standing in the threshold of this self-ass-stage, I heard the words of critic Fred Moten, who once defined blackness as a “disruptive surprise moving in the rich nonfullness of every term it modifies.” And then I thought it was time to get busy.

Bennett Simpson is a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.