When I first read Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993), which is set in 1940s Cajun country, I held out hope that Grant Wiggins, the schoolteacher protagonist, would somehow free Jefferson, the young black man falsely accused of murder. Instead, Wiggins’s weekly visits to the jail revolve around convincing the young man that he is not a “hog,” as he’s been derided by his racist accusers, but a man. As Jefferson’s death by electric chair becomes inevitable, the act of facing that fate with his humanity intact, we learn, constitutes a heroic form of resistance. The lesson that history can have its way regardless of an individual’s actions is a bitter pill to swallow, if nonetheless poignant.
Rodney McMillian’s work, which encompasses sculpture, painting, video, and performance, offers the same bitter pill, highlighting the ills of an unjust society while also showing the brute power of historical currents. In the three institutional exhibitions that comprised his first East Coast retrospective, the tensions between the possibilities of self-determination and the forces of historical determinism played out through a rich host of allusions.
“Views of Main Street,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, conjured the failure of the American Dream through found domestic objects—ripped and broken chairs, warped linoleum flooring, stained carpeting, old paperbacks. Cheap and forlorn, these items bear the weight of their ruin, which McMillian often exaggerates by further distressing their forms. Like the Arte Povera artists, and their American heirs (David Hammons, Mike Kelley, and Nari Ward among them), he expressively adapts and transforms his materials through a kind of alchemical abstraction. The maroon-colored carpet remnants of an untitled piece from 2011, for example, are roughly sutured together and hang from the wall like a Post-Minimalist sculpture. Similarly, Couch (2012), which presents a 1960s-era sofa bisected by a mass of cement, evokes Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions.
Anchoring these symbols of derelict beauty within a larger narrative of politics were videos and text-based works that foreground McMillian’s interest in the rhetoric of social policy as it relates to race. A 1968 quote by Martin Luther King Jr. stitched in red onto burlap, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” and a video in which McMillian delivers Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous 1964 Great Society speech are contrasted with the conservative 1980s rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater, as reenacted by ventriloquist dummies in other videos on display. If such ideological juxtapositions can be read as a canceling out, McMillian’s Main Street nonetheless reminds us that countering the Donald Trumps of the world—who, like the mythic Hydra, perpetually rear their ugly heads—requires vigilance.
Enter Ultraman, the Japanese sci-fi superhero known for slaying monsters, who figured prominently in McMillian’s exhibition “The Black Show,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Here again, sculptures and videos conflated the past and the present to tell a cyclical story of racism, variously configured through references to the Great Migration, Afrofuturism, and notions of landscape—domestic, alien, and political—as contiguous with the body.
Ultraman is composed entirely of light (the source of his power) and only takes humanoid form on earth. Wearing a mask of the hero’s silver alien face in the video A beckoning: We are not who we think we are (2015), which pulses in and out of focus and is punctuated by strobelike flashes, McMillian performs a set of oblique gestures with his arms while shifting from foot to foot, as if to summon more light. The superhero mask reappears in the videos A Migration Tale (2014–15) and Shelter (Crawl): ancestral lands (2015), both of which played on suspended screens, one behind the other, the installation allowing their narratives to intermesh. In A Migration Tale, McMillian’s Ultraman, dressed in a priest’s cassock, travels from a veranda in South Carolina to the streets of Harlem. On his journey, he visits the South Carolina State House, where the Confederate flag still waves, steps away from a George Washington monument. Filmed before the flag was removed in the aftermath of the Charleston murders of nine African-American churchgoers, the video is an eerie symbol of the struggles for racial justice that remain.
The heroic if often futile nature of political struggle is more sardonically conveyed in Shelter (Crawl), where a hazmat-suited McMillian crawls through a scrubby field with a microphone in hand, singing the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter”: “War, children, it’s just a shot away . . . Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away.” His gravelly voice strains from the effort, but he continues, picking up an ax along the way. Eventually the microphone cord, connected to a speaker amid the weeds, impedes his movement. The soundtrack bled into the action on the other screen, animating Ultraman’s journey as alien other. Like the hooded abstract sculpture stitched together from black vinyl that hung nearby, and the 1966 Sun Ra speech equating peace with death that McMillian recites in Preacher Man (2015), the song portends a dark future. Once again the question of how we face that future and the imperative to intervene are simultaneously evoked.
In what may be the most hopeful, and aesthetically buoyant, component of McMillian’s retrospective, MoMA PS1’s “The Landscape Paintings” forged an artist’s answer to that query. Twelve discarded bedsheets, repurposed and transformed, hung vertically side by side, encrusted in layers of latex paint, predominately bright in color. The artist has stated that he conceived them as landscapes for the figures and animals that Bill Traylor (1854–1949) portrayed against blank backgrounds in his drawings. Traylor, a self-taught artist and a freed slave, began documenting the black community of 1940s Montgomery, Alabama, where he lived, at the age of eighty-five. As in Gaines’s novel, the dignity and humanity represented in Traylor’s work offers a lesson in resistance and the power of perseverance, which McMillian’s work brilliantly echoes.