Rodney McMillian’s work is a journey, and viewers willing to travel can make seeing it a journey, too. Three exhibitions on view at East Coast institutions comprise a tripartite midcareer retrospective for the Los Angeles-based artist. The Studio Museum in Harlem is currently featuring his sculptures, many made of repurposed couches, chairs and other domestic “post-consumer objects” in a show titled “Views of Main Street.” “The Black Show” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia highlights his video and performance work, as well as large-scale paintings that constitute immersive environments.
In a single-gallery show at MoMA PS1, New York, poured paintings on bedsheets hang tightly together. They form a kind of enclosure that loosely echoes the tunnel-like structures that McMillian has been exhibiting over the past few years.
The sheet paintings reflect McMillian’s complex interest in landscape, which he understands as both a historical genre of painting and as a contemporary vehicle for speculation. I was also reminded of Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, a 1955 gestural painting on a found quilt. McMillian’s paintings similarly combine a gritty, corporeal materialism with an allusion to a private space for dreaming and perhaps transcendence. Like many of his works, these paintings imply an absent human body—and subsequently raise questions about race, gender, and political representation. I met with McMillian at PS1 to discuss his engagement with art historical traditions and precedents, as well as histories of oppression in the US.
SMITH Could you describe the process behind these works?
McMILLIAN It starts with getting a bedsheet. I’ll often go to St. Vincent De Paul, a thrift store in Los Angeles. These are not high-thread-count Egyptian cotton. They’re post-consumer objects, and the price tags from the thrift store are still on them, which shows the economic system that they’re circulating in. Usually I have the image of what I want depicted before I begin the painting, and I have an idea of the palette. This work, A seed is a star , was made in my backyard in California by pouring house paints I got from Home Depot over the sheet, letting them run over the edges onto the ground. Once the work dried, I peeled it off the ground, making decisions about which of the spills to keep and which to remove.
SMITH You started with the starburst image?
McMILLIAN Yes. And that image was connected to the title I had in mind. A seed is a star is a reference to a Stevie Wonder song. It’s linking the terrestrial to the extraterrestrial.
SMITH You used the term “post-consumer” to describe sheets and the other domestic items you purchase and then modify for your sculptures and paintings. What does it mean for you?
McMILLIAN “Post-consumer” suggests a long economic process that starts with material grown in a field or synthesized. That material is woven into a fabric, then a designer designs the object. From there it’s actually manufactured into a sheet. Then it’s shipped to a store, then it’s sold, then the person who purchased it lives with it, and discards it. At that point it finds its way into another economic system—that being a secondhand store—then into another system: the museum, the art world. I use “post-consumer” because I want to implicate the entire economic landscape, the system, in which we exist.
SMITH What are the aesthetic origins of this series?
McMILLIAN I was thinking about Bill Traylor [1853-1949]. I’ve loved his work since I encountered it at an exhibition at Hirschl and Adler Gallery in the late 1990s, when I was working at a law firm in midtown Manhattan. I went up there on my lunch breaks and was blown away. The characters Traylor depicted—the figures, the animals—spoke of pathos and humor. And they also conveyed an idea of tragedy. Yet they were painted on cardboard panels, without any depiction of a landscape. The landscape was only implied. I think about this work as depicting the landscapes alluded to in Traylor’s paintings.
SMITH What is the relationship between landscape, which implies an outside—a natural world—and the sense of interiority and domestic life conveyed through the materials, like bedding, that you often employ in your paintings and sculptures, and the repurposed chairs and sofas on view at the Studio Museum?
McMILLIAN The home is informed by the outside world. There are real material, economic, and political aspects of the landscape that shape how homes are built, where homes are built, and how people choose to live in them. The landscape doesn’t exist apart from those conditions. The notion of a landscape as a vista, a reprieve from urban life, a place to get back in touch with nature—that seems to be a bit of a fiction.
SMITH You shot some of your videos in charged settings that connect landscapes to the political history of the US and the South in particular. The characters in your videos reference figures from Nat Turner to Lee Atwater. There’s a sense of tragedy, pathos, and even horror.
McMILLIAN I don’t know how one can look at the history of our nation and not see the horror, because there’s been so much bloodshed, disenfranchisement, exploitation, and oppression that has been persistently institutionalized through policy. My video A Migration Tale  takes place in part in South Carolina. The character walks down the steps of the statehouse and passes the Confederate flag, before it was taken down after that horrible massacre in Charleston. If one looks at the current history of America one has to think through the history of the South. A lot of the language that is currently used in political contexts is predicated on a “Southern Strategy” which is rooted in a reaction to the Civil War, and the perceived winners and losers of that war.
SMITH The performer in A Migration Tale wears a Halloween-style mask. There’s an element of physical comedy in some of your work. How do you see relationship between horror and humor?
McMILLIAN Sometimes humor is a serious business. Great comedians are often speaking profound truths that are not easy to digest. Humor enables me as a viewer to acknowledge the horror, but also to sit with it in a certain way that isn’t debilitating. But that doesn’t at all negate the existence of horror.
SMITH You currently have three exhibitions on the East Coast, and you’re from South Carolina. But I want to talk about Los Angeles. How has that particular setting been important for your work?
McMILLIAN Well, I can work in my backyard on these large paintings, so the particular architecture and climate and urban space are definitely important. Maybe more important, though, my work comes out of the particular history of art in LA. The studio I had for more than eleven years was next to the Woman’s Building, where people like Suzanne Lacey worked. I was aware of that history, and I was aware that Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassigner and Ulysses Jenkins and David Hammons did performance work in LA, starting in the late '60s. And the later performance work that came from LA has been part of my environment: Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, and of course Charles Gaines.
Most of the people I named have been great teachers; so much of the art in LA is linked to the academy. Some of my colleagues at UCLA, and within the UC system—Andrea Fraser, Mary Kelly, and Barbara Kruger—have been teaching for years even though they don’t have to do it. There was not a big market in LA for a long time, of course, but more importantly they believed in the value of teaching and what it can produce.
SMITH Some critics and curators have placed your work in a tradition of feminist art: Nengudi, Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse.
McMILLIAN I’ve definitely been influenced by those works, because many of those artists were taking activist positions. They didn’t pull any punches. They had a complete awareness of the system they were operating in. There’s an efficiency in how they used materials they had on hand, and a directness to what they had to say. Nengudi created sculptures from stockings that deal with the body, space, weight, gravity, and fragility. Her works also deal with race—the tone of the stockings that she used. And there’s a frontality to these pieces. They come into space. People have to navigate them.
SMITH You mentioned Stevie Wonder previously. What is the role of pop music in your work?
McMILLIAN It’s another art form that uses the politics of its time, the aesthetics of its time, and the technologies of its time to speak in the present tense. So people like Parliament Funkadelic, Prince, Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Chaka Khan—I learn from them just as I have from Adrian Piper, Valie Export, and Andrea Fraser.
SMITH Do you see your work as part of an activist tradition?
McMILLIAN I would by no means call myself an activist. But I’m trying to create a discursive space where I can raise ideas that I find germane, share them with others, and attempt to understand the context in which I exist.