On ViewThe Studio Museum In Harlem
March 24 – June 26, 2016
Be forewarned: if you have ever lived in a house in the suburbs—or have parents or grandparents who dreamed of such things—Rodney McMillian’s Untitled (2006) might make you cry. At the very least, the overwhelming physical presence of the massive piece of brown linoleum will stay with you long after seeing Views of Main Street, McMillian’s first solo show in New York. Tacked to a wall, the roughly 12-x-12-foot sheet of linoleum spills onto the floor beneath, as if it were too mammoth to be contained or to behave according to the conventional rules of display. Days later, I am still falling asleep to the image of the brown linoleum, that cracked synthetic flooring with its faux-stone pattern floating above my head. Like the fractured American Dream it once embodied, it is so obtrusive, so haunting, it refuses to be ignored.
And if it’s not the memory of Untitled’s linoleum form lurking in the shadows then it’s McMillian’s Couch (2012) that is following me around. I can’t shake the sight of that sateen-upholstered piece of furniture McMillian sawed in half and then rejoined with a huge gob of unevenly poured concrete. The contrast between the roughness of the concrete and the aristocratic grandeur of the champagne-colored fabric, with its horizontal stripes and tiny bouquets, suggests, if not haste, then desperation to find a way to make do, to achieve one’s longings for prosperity and comfort in the face of mounting obstacles.
With pieces like Untitled and Couch,McMillian has clearly hit a raw nerve, and not just in me. Although he has been making art for well over a decade, in addition to his first two solo shows last year (in Los Angeles and Denver), he currently has three solo shows in the northeast: Views of Main Street at the Studio Museum in Harlem; Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1; and The Black Show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. One suspects that part of the reason for his current success is not that his approach or his thematic preoccupations have changed, but that the context in which they are viewed has. The narratives he exposes—the social and psychological consequences of economic inequality, the racism endemic to America’s political elites and institutions, and the failed promise of American freedom and prosperity for all of its citizens—once seemed marginal to white, American society. They have now become prominent, constant parts of public discourse.
While most Americans have at some point experienced economic difficulties or social isolation, as Views of Main Street suggests, white Americans and African Americans have not experienced them in the same way. Consider Untitled. Linoleum once held the promise of the future for many white Americans. Its origins go back to England in the mid-19th century but it did not enter American homes en masse until after World War II, when many white Americans began to leave the cities in pursuit of their American Dream, the proverbial single-family home with a white picket fence and bright green lawn. Although the notion of “Main Street U.S.A.” was always a myth, it contained enough elements of reality—the possibility of home ownership, employment, and prosperity—to make it a viable aspiration for many working and middle-class white Americans.
The dream of a suburban retreat did not prevail among most African Americans. Just when many white Americans were settling into their suburban idyll (between roughly 1940 and 1970), many African-Americans from the southern United States were heading not to the suburbs but to cities in the North, in search of employment and a better life. By 1970, the overwhelming majority of African Americans lived in cities, coinciding with soaring rates of inflation and unemployment, and an acceleration of so-called “white flight” from the city. African Americans were thus left to eke out an existence in the increasingly crime-ridden, impoverished urban spaces that whites were leaving behind.
Without this historical context in mind it might be initially difficult to understand the more subtle references in Views of Main Street. However, the more effective juxtapositions in the show make the consequences of this disjuncture (between the postwar white and black American experiences, and between the promise of equality and prosperity, and the reality of increasing economic inequality and systemic racism) painfully clear. Viewed on its own, for instance, Untitled (Refrigerator) (2009)—a white refrigerator with a massive hole in its middle, torn asunder with such energy, such ferocity, that it looks almost like a belly of flesh, not plastic and steel, that has been ripped open from the insides—might merely refer to the human condition, to the pains of a spiritual hunger that cannot be fed. But sitting next to Untitled (the Great Society) I, (2006), a filmed performance of African American painter, Stephen Westfall, reenacting Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” in which Westfall (reading as Johnson) says, “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” Untitled (Refrigerator) takes on a whole new and rather specific meaning. That hole no longer looks like a reference to the universal condition of insatiable cravings or unmet animal desire, but more like a political act, a protest against the unfilled promises of the American Dream for African Americans specifically.
Not all such juxtapositions succeed, however. In the filmed performance, Neshoba County Fair (2012), McMillian uses puppets to perform a famous speech delivered by Ronald Reagan at a fair in Mississippi in 1980. Many consider the speech, with its call for the restoration of state’s rights and welfare reform, little more than subtly masked race baiting. Directly across from the video hang twenty-seven charcoal portraits, which McMillian acquired from an estate sale. Done between the years of 1942 and 1956 by an amateur artist named Horace Taylor, the portraits, in the words of the wall text, are meant to refer to “the nameless Americans complicit in the perpetuation of Jim Crow -era racial prejudice to this day.” One problem with such an assertion is that it treads into the dangerous water of making sweeping, ahistorical assumptions about white Americans, as if they were “types” or ethnographic figures. The anonymous faces featured in Taylor’s etchings from the immediate postwar period were not the same anonymous Mississippians who supported Reagan over two decades later. A great deal changed between 1942 and 1980. Ignoring those differences does not help one understand why so many white Americans were susceptible to Reagan’s particular brand of mixing racism with neoliberal economic policies that hurt not only African Americans but also came back to bite the white working class as well.
Such issues aside, Views of Main Street presents a thoughtful exploration of the American past and present. Excavating the subterranean of the American historical subconscious, McMillian hits a landmine. As many of the woes of those living on and off the mythical Main Street begin to converge, the promise of Johnson’s Great Society and of the American Dream of socioeconomic mobility and abundance, in which every citizen could aspire to becoming the queen of her own castle—complete with linoleum-tiled floors, overstuffed sofas, and filled refrigerators—is fast becoming a distant memory.