The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania hosts The Black Show, works by Los Angeles-based artist Rodney McMillian. The Black Show continues the artist’s exploration of complexities where race, place, power, culture, history, socio-economic and political systems coalesce into physical reality. McMillian’s latest exhibition is a theatrical environment set up with screenings of many new choreographed videos, prop-like objects and stage, complete with curtains for an unusually provoking presence.
Succulent (2010) welcomes the viewer in the space and the style of the large, black stitched vinyl wall sculpture is repeated in several places. Wizard (for Doro) 2013, another black vinyl sculpture positioned on the center of the back wall, protrudes from the wall with a point. The allusion to the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard or the Knighthawk security guards is immediate. With the addition to the simple science fiction narrative that is located within McMillian’s video and allusion to sci-fy literature, the sculpture creates a surreal version of the KKK, nearly poking fun the antagonistic and xenophobic forces that spread through the United States as the dark side.
Many Moons (2015) suggests time as in ages, historical, ancestral. The large painting divides the room into nearly a night and day. The painting on the side viewers are introduced to depicts a landscape of Southern Gothic style. Light and moss-covered trees of the Deep South frame the darker side of the curtain. This side shows a large, black vinyl moon high up on the wall overlooking a video of McMillian reading an A.A. Milne children’s book to an abandoned building in Dockery, Mississippi. Although darkest of the exhibition, this space provides the most comforting setting, the feeling of a backstage area.
The psychological weight of Many moons curtain as a stage backdrop or curtain, the weight of the giant lungs of Untitled (lungs) (2008-2013) and the dark vinyl material offer a heavy and ominous physicality opposed to the floating screens and soft sculptures emanating from the walls. What McMillian doesn’t offer directly to the viewer is easily manufactured from the literal and metaphorical dark spaces throughout exhibit. The stage set, with an uncomfortable but provoking feeling of dark thoughts reminiscent of the night where anything goes. This metaphor is the perfect stand-in for the struggle of race, money and power from the earliest to modern times. Videos extend specificity to the overall narrative as in Preacher Man (2015) and a beckoning: We are not who we think we are (2015).
The Black Show indicates black as symbolism of McMillians race and history of African-Americans, but also a psychological setting for equal parts of fear, solitude and the unknown. The complicated nature of black history and America’s struggles with it, both past and present, are brought out in complex structures presented by McMillian. Layers of institutional racism, culture and science fiction create dimensions that are stitched together, much like the artist’s literal soft sculptures of black vinyl or videos throughout the space. These blurbs of information create an uneasy sense of utopian, dystopian, and post-apocalyptic visions of a future landscape.
By Jake Weigel