History as artistic medium: Rodney McMillian’s “Against a Civic Death” at The Contemporary Austin

REVIEW | McMillian's visually minimal but powerfully evocative exhibition poses a question: Just how much progress have we made? 


I don’t measure America by its achievement but by its potential.”— Shirley Chisholm

In its own description, the Contemporary Austin labels its new Rodney McMillian exhibition “timely.” This is apt, not only for its relevance to now, but for its ability to call up history as its very medium.

“Against a Civic Death” is visually minimal but powerfully evocative, drawing associations between the birth of our nation in the eighteenth century, the resilience of Black activism in the 1970s, and the state of power and politics in the present day. Through reference and association, the works in the show move fluidly between an analysis of the past and a melancholy meditation on the present—the continually stunning reality of Trump’s America. One cannot leave the exhibition without confronting a disturbing question: how much progress have we made?

The exhibition is essentially a single installation across two floors, divided into black and white, a strategy that works as both aesthetic frame and racial-political metaphor. McMillian seems to be playing with the binary of black and white as not just polar-opposites, but mutually constitutive forces. Black defines white in a dialectical relation as liberal defines conservative — we cannot understand one without the other because they exist through opposition. The powerful symbolism of these colors serves as a continuous current throughout McMillian’s practice, most notably in his landmark 2016 exhibition The Black Show at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

The first floor of the museum, (the white floor), is installed with clean visual economy, containing only three pieces. First, a small painting, its solid black surface punctuated with a quarter, hand-painted to scale, heads up. Across the room, we can follow George Washington’s gaze from the face of the coin to a monumentally sized tapestry depicting his presidential home (built in 1792 by mainly enslaved labor). Washington stands in as an icon of America’s history of white power—the first in a long sequence of slave holding men who shaped the core of our nation.

The relationship of scale between the painted quarter and the sewn White House tapestry suggests the quiet omnipresence of white power through the symbols and structures of our government. With its glistening white vinyl and thick hand-sewn stiches, the tapestry seems both impressive and Frankenstein-ish, a monstrous spectacle of neo-classical architecture.

In McMillian’s work the power of this type of architecture, which draws its prestige from nostalgic reference to the origins of democracy in Greece, hangs like a flaccid illusion. It takes a bit of Dorothy’s courage to pull aside the curtain and step into the dark room that lies beyond White House. This room contains Untitled (neighbors), the 18-minute film commissioned by The Contemporary with funds from the inaugural Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize.

Shot amongst the lush foliage of Austin’s own Laguna Gloria, the film depicts four (presumably) male figures in hooded white robes that resemble both Halloween ghosts and Klansmen. The slipperiness of the costumes, between silly-scary and truly terrifying, characterizes the piece’s whole affect. Beginning with a hazy soft focus, the camera reveals a strange, esoteric ritual in which the figures dance languidly toward a white gazebo. The gazebo’s columns recall those of the White House on the tapestry and hint at a nostalgia for the Old South.

Rodney McMillian
Rodney McMillian, Untitled (neighbors), 2017. Single-channel video, color, sound. Edition of 3. Running time: 19:04, loop. Commissioned by The Contemporary Austin, with funds provided by the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize. Courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Maccarone, New York. Artwork © Rodney McMillian. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Colin Doyle.

As the film progresses, the figures work themselves into a flamboyant, erotic frenzy, gyrating against the columns with relish and abandon. As I watched one of the figures pornographically lift his leg to mount the column, I found myself laughing nervously and looking around at my fellow audience members for support. No one else was laughing. The film oozes with this kind of surreal, uncomfortable emotion and reaches a climax with the figures twitching in violent spasms. It is hard not to feel like a voyeur as you watch this rite and wonder about the virile, masculine forces that haunt our country’s centers of power

Masking the right side of the museum’s grand staircase, a gargantuan black painting on unstretched canvas hangs from the ceiling of the second floor. Electrifying lines of purple, white, orange, red, and blue guide your ascent to the black floor. The 2018 painting, titled 44.8617 N, 93.5606 W: coordinates to an ascension, references the geographic location of Paisley Park, home to the late great Prince, pansexual god of soul and rock. This reference (through the title’s coordinates), is perhaps the most obscure of the show, and while the painting is lovely it doesn’t offer the clearest connection to the other works in the exhibition.

On the second floor, the gallery brims pleasantly with the installation pod: frequencies to a manifestationing, reconfigured for The Contemporary from its first showing at Susanne Vielmetter Projects in Los Angeles. Spindly white tables serve as pedestals for black vases in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, encircling a large black, organic pod form. The vases feel like embodied vessels, gathered together in familial clusters. They seem to reflect a spectrum of subtle differences in shade, and their surfaces range from velvety matte to lustrously shiny. As characters, they seemed poised at attention—like a receptive audience for the sound emanating from above the pod.

The effect of the pod, (and the title of the installation), conjures science fiction and seems to exist as some sort of powerful, emanating blob. It focuses your attention but also perplexes, alluding to the abstract, metaphorical qualities of the Blackness McMillian presents.

Above the pod is hung a retro-looking PA system playing the voice of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to win a seat in Congress. The audio is the speech she gave at UCLA in May of 1972, several months after announcing her primary run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Chisholm’s distinctive voice, with her gentle speech impediment and subtle West Indian accent, is buffeted and bounced against selections of two iconic experimental jazz records played from speakers on the side walls, Alice Coltrane’s 1971 “Journey in Satchidananda” and Sonny Sharrock’s 1991 “Ask the Ages.”

Rodney McMillian
Rodney McMillian, a prism, 2016. Fabric, canvas, acrylic, ink, and sound installation. 13 x 22 feet. Produced by Scott Benzel and Rodney McMillian. Sound: “That’s the Way of the World,” written by Maurice White, Charles Stepney, Verdine White (Earth, Wind & Fire), released 1975 and performed by Rodney McMillian, 2016. With special thanks to Tamara Silvera. Courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Maccarone, New York. Installation view, Rodney McMillian: Against a Civic Death, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, 2018. Artwork © Rodney McMillian. Courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Maccarone, New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Colin Doyle.

Chisholm is one of those truly remarkable women of history whose story has faded into the shadows of the great men of her period. Over the loudspeaker, Chisholm makes it clear that she was cognizant of the fact that being a black person, and a woman, put her in a doubly unlikely position for the role to which she aspired. Chisholm said she ran for the presidential nomination “in spite of hopeless odds … to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”

In an earlier speech to Congress in 1969, Chisholm asserted “As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black…. Prejudice against women is still acceptable. There is very little understanding yet of the immorality involved in double pay scales and the classifications of most of the better jobs ‘for men only.’” If only her words felt confined to the past.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]One cannot leave the exhibition without confronting a disturbing question: how much progress have we made?[/su_pullquote]

McMillian’s invocation of Chisholm inevitably draws our attention to recent electoral politics. In one interview McMillian has mentioned that his work depicts time “laterally,” instead of in the linear, chronological progression of history books. If Chisholm had clinched the nomination, she would have gone up against Richard Nixon. The current occupant of the White House has already drawn substantial comparisons to Nixon, and the post-Obama emergence of the alt-right feels unnervingly similar to the conservative backlash that followed the Civil Rights Movement.

Around the corner of the back wall of the second floor the viewer encounters prism, a black and purple monolith of fabric shaped into a striped curving wall. The sounds of McMillian, tentatively singing Earth, Wind, and Fire’s song “That’s the Way of the World” filters through the fabric. Music critic Jason King wrote that “EWF envisioned polyrhythmic pop as a musical antidepressant.” The warbling of McMillian’s uneasy voice lends an ambivalent emotion to EWF’s brand of soulful Black optimism.

Yet looking through a prism multiplies the way we see the world into a dazzle of rainbow colors. At certain moments standing towards the back end of the second floor, you can hear the overlap of prism with the sound of pod. In the face of dismal political conditions, Earth Wind and Fire seems like the perfect complement to Chisholm’s cynical, yet forward-looking rhetoric. Both acknowledge that the world is presenting an impossible challenge, but with the right prism, we might see different, more colorful possibilities.

McMillian’s installations are spare, but open themselves up like a gift to the curious viewer. The more I investigated the leads of McMillian’s references, the more my mind swirled with ideas about the inseparability of these histories from our baffling contemporary political moment. By juxtaposing the white and black floors, McMillian’s work not only expands our concept of race, but suggests the ongoing dynamism of a struggle between those forces looking to the future and those attempting to resurrect the past.

Reflecting on her historic run for the presidency, Chisholm still held out hope: “Someday… but not yet. Someday the country will be ready.”

“Against a Civic Death” continues through August 26 at the Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center. Beginning March 6 the museum will be hosting “Open for Discussion” a monthly free public discussion series. thecontemporaryaustin.org/exhibitions/rodney-mcmillian


Jessi DiTillio
Jessi DiTilliohttps://www.neonqueencollective.com/
Jessi DiTillio is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on 20th century American Art with a focus on African American artists, contemporary art engaging the politics of race and gender, and curatorial practice. She is currently the Curatorial Fellow at the Visual Art Center. She is part of the Neon Queen Collective, an independent curatorial initiative.

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