LOS ANGELES — Rodney McMillian’s Body Politic at Vielmetter Los Angeles builds on themes the artist has long engaged with: racial and socioeconomic injustice, and the relationship between politics and aesthetics.
The exhibition is comprised of drawings with text and semi-abstract sculptures, as well as one wall-sized installation. McMillian’s strategies are not novel, but he has rigorously honed his craft. His grasp of nuance and light-handed approach coax viewers in before confronting them with the history of racism in the United States.
In the drawing “Mississippi Appendectomy” (2020), for example, a statement by civil rights scholar Dorothy Roberts on medical procedures performed on Black women without their knowledge in the 1960s emerges from a smoggy pink-gray murk, framed by a swirl of oily black and toxic green pigment that seeps off the page. A turquoise circle near the top suggests an eerie moon or all-seeing eye, and conjures a polluted landscape.
With the drawings, McMillian deftly treads the line between politics and aesthetics, creating tension between the texts and the viscerally beautiful expanses of color. Although the works have a clear affinity with Abstract Expressionism, the artist considers them landscapes (integrating the word “landscape” into titles at times). By framing them this way, he unveils the insidious racial exclusion and oppression in Abstract Expressionism and landscape painting.
The effect evokes psychic and physical violence — in “Anatomical Acquisitions” (2020) a maelstrom of red paint is juxtaposed with an unsettling 1831 advertisement by South Carolina Medical College that promotes the program’s acquisition of cadavers from the Black population for dissection. Likewise, the washes of multicolored pigment, splattered across vertical strips of white paper, that compose “Inside the 1st President’s Mouth” (2020) allude to both physical and emotional turmoil summoned in the nearly invisible white text: “George Washington chewed his food and formed words with the teeth of slaves in his head.”
While the drawings layer the history of violence against Black people in the US with the unspoken biases of American modern art, a series of sculptures made of fabric and chicken wire and painted black expand on the politics of representation that haunt abstraction.
“Black Dick” is a gigantic, drooping appendage that takes on a startling corporeality with the title, while “Untitled (entrails)” (2019-20) snakes across the floor and loops around butcher’s hooks. Recalling both Minimalism and its bodily revisions by 1970s feminist artists, it foregrounds McMillian’s attention to the abuses wrought by white perpetrators on Black individuals. It is at once stunning and horrific.
The exhibition culminates with “White House II” (2018-20), a white vinyl facade of the White House made from the remnants of a similar piece in his 2018 Booth Prize award show in Austin. It is imposing, but it suffers without the more interactive element of its previous iteration (which visitors had to walk behind to access another part of the show).
It’s in dialogue with one another that the works in the complete show are most effective. Collectively, Body Politic expertly casts its critical gaze.
Rodney McMillian: Body Politic continues at Vielmetter Los Angeles (1700 S. Santa Fe Ave. #101, Los Angeles, California) through December 5.