Power, politics, history at the center of an immersive exhibition by artist Rodney McMillian

The Los Angeles artist is the inaugural recipient of the Contemporary Austin’s Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize


For the inaugural Booth Art Prize show at the Contemporary Austin, Los Angeles-based artist Rodney McMillian tackles a potent American symbol: The White House.

And the White House is but one of many American social and political institutions McMillian tackles in his sprawling immersive exhibit, “Rodney McMillian: Against a Civic Death” opens Feb. 1 and continues through Aug. 26.

McMillian is the inaugural recipient of the Contemporary’s Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize, a biennial award that includes a major solo exhibition.

And the artist plans including leveraging the entiretwo-story Jones Center to make a striking arrangement of new and recent work, bifurcating the space in distinct but artistically interrelated sections. Downstairs the color white prevails; upstairs, black.

Heather Pesanti, senior curator of the Contemporary says that “Against a Civic Death” is a culmination of the artist’s intellectual, political and aesthetic premise over many years.

“(The exhibit) is a call to arms,” says Pesanti. “Using the seemingly binary, deeply symbolic colors of white and black to represent chapters in white supremacism and black progressive politics, respectively, the installations over two floors of the Jones Center present a series of immersive works in painting, sculpture, sound, and performance that argue for a collective resistance toward civic inequality. McMillian’s work offers a commentary on overlooked histories and the potential for change through action.”

Using American civic architecture as a locus for critique is a common strategy for McMillian and  for exhibit at the Contemporary he’s created a massive white painting of the façade of White House. Rendered in limp, draping vinyl pieces, the details of this White House and its (once) dignified Neoclassical architectural details are hand stitched in gray and black while its columns pool on the floor.

McMillian’s White House will hang and visitors will pass through the draping white vinyl pieces to see “Untitled (neighbors)” a newly commissioned 18-minute film McMillian shot in Austin. Four male figures cloaked in white robes — evocative of Ku Klux Klan robes  — move through the night woods in an awkward, simian style. Gathering around a Neoclassical gazebo they engage in bizarre and sexually-charged moves, first humping the gazebo’s columns, then later enacting an frenzied dance.

Arrestingly composed and shot with a somewhat cloudy filmic effect that nevertheless doesn’t occlude visual details, “Untitled (neighbors)” roils with a multitude of meanings both epic and quotidian.

“History is present tense. It’s present for me.” McMillian told the Los Angeles Times recently.

Rodney McMillian
Rodney McMillian, “pod: frequencies to a manifestationing,” (detail), 2016, Vases, wood shelves, spray paint, fabric, chicken wire, PA system and sound installation. Artwork © Rodney McMillian. Image courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer.

Filling the second floor will most of the second floor is “pod: frequencies to a manifestationing,” a reconfiguration of a 2016 installation with still-life arrangements of empty black vases placed on white tables that surround a giant black pod. Overhead speakers broadcast the two audio recordings, one of which is the campaign speech given by Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm in 1972 when she was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination — the first black candidate and the first female candidate to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party in the United States.

Chisholm’s historical role is often reduced to merely symbolic in most history texts. And yet her firm infuriation with the political status quo reverberates today when as she excoriates political power that “relegates the masses to the bottom of the priority list.”

The recording Chisholm’s speech overlaps with a recording of Alice Coltrane’s song “Journey to Satchidananda.” The cacophony is deliberate.

“The disparities of economic class are often what I’ve been interested in,” McMillian said last year when it was announced he won the Booth Art Prize. “Issues around poverty cut across all demographics.”

A remarkable biennial award, the Booth Art Prize is given to an artist of any age, any nationality and working in any medium. An independent advisory council of six curators and art historians make the selection. Art patron Suzanne Deal Booth established the award in 2016.

Monetarily, the Booth Art Prize is on the level with some of the art world’s largest awards. In addition to the exhibition and its accompanying catalog, McMillian receives $100,000 in prize money with no strings attached.

When his award was announced McMillian said: “It’s thrilling to be offered the chance to embark on a new idea or approach. It’s rare.”

A longtime faculty member at UCLA, McMillian’s has enjoyed the limelight of late with three simultaneous solo museum exhibits in 2016 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Modern Art’s P.S. 1 and the Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

Nevertheless he’s declined, for reasons of public reticence, to give an artist talk with his exhibit at the Contemporary.

However some deft programmatic curating finds Texas-based painter Vincent Valdez on Feb. 19 talking about his own sociopolitically-charged work vis-à-vis McMillian’s.


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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