McMillian Deconstructs Main Street at the Studio Museum
Multi-disciplinary artist Rodney McMillian treats the legacies of Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater with exactly the level of respect they deserve. In two video works in McMillian’s current show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he lays the audio of these Republicans’ contemptible, racist words over silly footage of dead-eyed dummies and other dolls. Hardly subtle, but bitingly clever, the right kind of mean in the right way and very effective at communicating a strong, critical political point.
McMillian (b. 1969) is having a major moment. His show of videos, sculptures and paintings at the Studio Museum—on view through June 26—is called “Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street.” He also has current exhibitions up at PS1: “Rodney McMillian: Landscape Paintings” (through August 29), and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia: “Rodney McMillian: The Black Show” (through August 14). (I will only discuss the Studio Museum show here.)
It is difficult to characterize McMillian’s Studio Museum show concisely. In addition to the videos and several paintings that range from the more or less straightforward to a large canvas cut into the shape of the façade of the United States Supreme Court, the artworks make use of a diverse and surprising collection of domestic objects—his exploration of the Main Street of the exhibition’s title. Among these domestic objects are several pieces of found furniture. He shows a tattered and derelict chair (Chair, 2003) as a kind of readymade, with the ravages of time and abuse as part of what’s readymade about it. In Couch, 2012, McMillian has sawed the worn out piece of furniture in half and re-connected the parts—roughly—with a bulbous lump of cement. Two large works consist of full rooms’ floor coverings, beat-up linoleum and grim wall-to-wall carpet, respectively, still in the shapes of those rooms, but now mounted on the museum walls.
“Main Street” doesn’t refer to African Americans.
The banality of these domestic items is McMillian’s gesture toward the Main Street of the exhibition’s title, and their collective decrepit condition is the artist’s challenge to the idea that Main Street is an easy concept. He has explained that pundits like to talk about “Main Street” as a generic reference to the experiences of everyday people, but they neglect to acknowledge the deep disparities of race and class among multiple Main Streets. McMillian’s goal to undermine the simplistic concept of Main Street gets at a larger political issue: “When I’ve heard that expression [“Main Street”], I have never believed it referred to me or other African Americans, regardless of our economic station.”
McMillian investigates the inappropriately casual ways that too many people talk about fraught and complex topics. It’s one thing to do the good work of calling attention to the limitations of “Main Street” as a concept, but another, even more powerful thing to call out the casual-yet-malignant bigotry of politicians making actual policy. This brings us back to the dummy videos. Lee Atwater was a Republican strategist and consultant and the chair of the Republican National Committee who has become famous for having theorized ways for his party’s politicians to sound neutral while being monstrously racist. This is someone genuinely wistful—as late as the 1980s—for a time when he wouldn’t get any backtalk for calling people “niggers”.
Signaling how casual and unconcerned he was about his bigotry, Atwater allowed himself to be recorded in 1981 interview in which he laid out his thoughts on the state of identity politics. He talked openly about the need for coded language and oblique policies about race, since he still wanted the GOP to appeal to its racist constituency—who could be counted on to recognize the code—without their political opponents having anything explicit to criticize. In Dummies on a Porch Swing (Lee Atwater Interview, 1981), 2012, McMillian, in an elegant taunt, shows us how we ought to think about Atwater.
Neshoba County Fair, 2012, recreates the famous episode in Mississippi during Reagan’s 1980 campaign when he embraced the “Southern Strategy” of supporting states’ rights—only perfunctorily-veiled race baiting and precisely Atwater’s strategy. Behind the podium in McMillian’s video are a couple of ventriloquist’s dummies, a toy tyrannosaur and what looks like a brown Muppet. The artwork includes a grid of found charcoal and pencil portraits (by Horace Taylor) on a wall facing the video—an audience of generic white people passively attending the creepy speech. Among the unsettling lessons gleaned from McMillian’s show is how little has changed in the intervening decades. Certainly there are Republicans in the current election cycle making creepy racist speeches to unquestioning white crowds—crowds who unproblematically consider themselves part of “Main Street”.
A third video, Untitled (The Great Society) I, 2006, shows artist Stephen Westfall, recruited by McMillian to deliver President Johnson’s 1964 Great Society speech (a speech that McMillian himself has performed live). The Great Society was a collection of progressive social policies, including programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps. Significantly, in light of Reagan and Atwater 15 years later, this was also around the same time Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. While it’s gratifying to have a positive example of well-intentioned politicking to contrast with McMillian’s GOP targets, the show makes it impossible to forget that many of the problems The Great Society was meant to solve are sadly still acute problems today. In any case, it’s not like McMillian’s political affinities weren’t already absolutely clear, but still, the literally humanity in this video contrasted with the mocking dummies and inhuman policy positions of the other videos tells us everything we need to know.
“Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street” is a fascinating, evocative, often surprisingly lovely show, and an excellent example of an artist’s deeply sophisticated engagement with political subject matter—even the dummies; the tone is perfect. When you go see the exhibition—and you should—you should also see the two other spectacular solo shows on view at the Studio Museum. Rashaad Newsome’s “This is What I Want to See” includes a selection of collages and videos exploring the voguing community. Ebony G. Patterson’s full-room installation “…when they grow up…” is a moving statement about black children and innocence and violence. These three individual, concurrent shows combine arresting visuals with poignant political engagement and productively demonstrate a variety of ways art can critique and explain important cultural forces in contemporary life.