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There has been a good deal of conversation in the last few years around the subject of Congressional district gerrymandering, a process by which the boundaries of an electoral constituency are manipulated to favor a political party or a class. This talk has been popular because gerrymandering subverts our representative democracy, and it is a precursor for ethnic and class-based disfranchisement. In visual art too, represented ideas can have rhetorical boundaries drawn around them to oblige a particular reading while other aspects of the work are ignored. The exhibitions, Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street, at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at MoMA PS1 feel like gerrymandered shows, though one is much less so than the other. They are both exhibitions where I’m staggered by the power of the artist’s work, but find that the didactic text attempts to limit my responses to obvious and restricted readings of McMillian’s work — full of signifiers that reference domesticity, race, and class, and more.
Take McMillian’s important “Chair” (2003) at the Studio Museum. It’s just that, only a chair — dirty and disheveled and listing to one side because of two broken legs, with the upholstery and supports all undone and exposed. You look at it long enough and your eyes may start to burn and the heart in your chest feel heavier for all the weight of that devastated object that you now want to relieve. You want to pick it up because it’s broken, and being broken, it’s an apt metaphor for everything else dwelling in urban environments that seems damaged or abandoned: infrastructure, people, institutions, entire neighborhoods. McMillian’s chair stinks of urban blight, so much so one can hardly look at it without thinking of the moment (if you remember it) that then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan visited the South Bronx to tag it as a poster child of governmental failure. With all its historical significance and abject appearance, “Chair” is a work that might break you.
Taking up the theme of political and social disfranchisement, the curator, Naima Keith, describes the exhibition’s theme as conveying that “the domestic sphere … is far from a site of belonging. It functions instead as a space where the wear and tear of hard-earned possessions become a powerful metaphor for continued racial and class prejudices.” But this is an impoverished reading.
The work also has to do with the passage of time and the nature of personal use and what we value as worth preserving, and clearly, the implications of belonging to someone. A chair is an intimate object that holds your body off the ground, takes your weight, thus allowing one to have moments where the responsibility for holding the body up is abdicated. A chair signifies repose within a particular, historicized epoch and notion of civilization, and the broken version of this object should not be limited to reading it through the valences of race and class. Indeed that worn linoleum and carpet of “Untitled” (2006) and “Untitled” (2011) suggest that domesticity is a kind of simultaneous wearing away of the substrate, and an accumulation of signs (stains and tears) that indicate use by a particular set of people in a particular time.
The wall texts and explanatory captions want too much to keep visitor responses within the bounds of a critique of racial and class injustice. McMillian’s work is stronger when it isn’t forced into these narrow enclosures of meaning. Look at the sofa with a wash of frozen cement down the middle: “Couch” (2012). It’s stunningly surreal. Looking at it reminded me of the first time I looked at Meret Oppenheim’s fur covered saucer and spoon. The combination of antipodean parts (in Oppenheim’s work, the animal world and the human bourgeois, in McMillian’s the industrial and the urban domestic) are so eerie that my first reaction is cognitive dissonance — for a minute I just can’t process it. Artists such as Ruben Ochoa have used the tactic of taking what typically belongs in industrial contexts into the gallery, but the drama of Ochoa’s gesture comes from transgressing the white cube. That work is masculinist and modernist, with just a dash of sociopolitical awareness for flavor. But with “Couch” and “Untitled” (2009), an Ikea chair with a long, tarred tube going through it, the profound effect of the industrial intersecting the domestic is dissonance. This isn’t supposed to happen.
Contrast this conceptual framing with what MoMA PS1 has done with its exhibition Rodney McMillian: Landscape Paintings. Here, there is no anxious wall text, urging the visitor to be aware of the underlying politics of the work. Their press release claims that the paintings are “laden with traces of personal and corporeal histories,” that are “transformed by the artist into works that engage the history of landscape painting.” The curators want to make the paintings speak to every other thing except race and ethnicity. In characteristic Museum of Modern Art style, they attempt to make the work understood within a particular genre, an art historical classification system. So visitors can read that the work provokes “questions about class and identity, as well as gender and sexuality … and suggest relationships between inner and outer space”
There is failure here as well. This rhetoric avoids or misses the work’s challenge to genre categorization and the underlying politics of economic status. Just look at the work. McMillian has broken genre boundaries. These are not landscape paintings in any meaningful sense of the word “landscape.” These are paintings that take the most abject objects, abandoned bedding, which no one would likely want to ever touch, and changes them into rapturously modernist schemes of aestheticized triumph. He made revolting, everyday objects live again in a different discourse focused on value and worth. If questions of inner versus outer space are here at all, they are so far in the background as to become only footnotes.
The piece “Untitled (refrigerator)” (2009) at the Studio Museum illustrates McMillian’s true powers. The piece begs the question that underlies much of his work: how did we get here? What was the explosive force that blew a hole in the fridge door? How does anything in this context survive? The wall text again claims that the work “poetically reference [s] [the] historical marginalization of people of color.” It does, clearly in the video works like “Neshoba County Fair” (2012) and “Untitled (the Great Society) I” (2006), but these are the least lyrical and the most plodding works. Rather, they operate mostly by mime and mimicry of obviously racist and classist rhetoric. McMillian’s poetry crosses the borders of the districts of race and class.
The rhetoric of wall texts and press releases that attempts to organize our responses is typical of museum and gallery framing of contemporary art, but in these instances it does the work a disservice. Do go see these shows, but find your own way through them. Work by feeling. To paraphrase the poet, Theodore Roethke learn by going where you have to go.
Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street continues at the Studio Museum (144 West 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through June 26, 2016. Rodney McMillian: Landscape Paintings continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through August 29.