Rodney McMillian’s Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1

Above photograph by the author.

I recently attended the month-long Cooper Union summer art intensive where I studied graphic design, drawing from life, and contemporary art issues. I’ll be posting samples of my work shortly, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a response I had written for one of my classes after visiting Rodney McMillian: Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1. Our assignment was to choose a piece and write about it poetically. I hope I accomplished this task. Unfortunately, the show closed on August 28th, but hopefully the image above and the following description will give you a good sense of my experience.

Out of all the pieces in the exhibition, I elected to write about Site #1, an origin narrative, specifically, for I felt it was far more kinetic and aggressive, emphatic in its blackness, in comparison to McMillian’s other works. I also considered it one of the most successful in conveying the appearance of a landscape, as was the artist’s objective, and thereby worthy of discussion. Standing before it, I think immediately of looking down from a helicopter upon a tattered relic of the past, the scene below transformed or perverted by industrial modernity, but somehow still archaic with its residual organicism. From above, I see flowing wellsprings; if I were closer I could walk the Bible, journeying through a desert of green gingham and leftover paint from construction supply stores. He cunningly employs an aerial view, so familiar an image style it has become contemporary visual currency, in the process of communicating the scene. But McMillian’s portrayal is also effective by way of his thick, goopy brushstrokes and the sense of friction in the work, visible through the juxtaposition of heavy paint with a light, delicate background. Myriad other contrasts overwhelm the piece: as an object, it is filmy and fragile, but from far away, it resembles the aftermath of the BP oil spill with its both inky and rough textures. Secondly, there is this anxiety, an urgency that pervades it– the viewer might get the impression that the work is asking him to decide what to see or what to feel– and yet it is also exacting, dictating, and demanding. There is a certain messiness to the piece, and although how it actually looks may not seduce the eye in its imperfection, its beauty carries through. I especially enjoy the fusion of a cracked marble surface, discernible via a blend of blue and black pigment, with the glossiness of the other layers, garbage bag-like in their stretchy sheen. Almost crunchy, I would say, if not for some lingering plasticity, distinguishing the central mass from tides seeping outwards. Site #1 has this unique synthesis of noir undertones– scratchy, bleak, and matte– with a superficial gleam reminiscent of nail polish and duct tape. Hardness versus malleability. Permanence versus movement. The vibrant aquamarine strands, which give way to the aforementioned fractured veneer, whirl as they ride in waves up an ebony river, rocking to an O’Keefe-ish tune of juvenile sophistication. They are intrepid in exploring expansion beyond the sheet’s confines, though it seems that here the artist eschewed this possibility, opting out of the third dimension exercised in neighboring works that conjure the carpet “sculptures” of Faig Ahmed. There are echoes of Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, and even famous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrator, Ralph Steadman, in Site #1, which for me is part of its appeal. But it is the slender blueness of the piece, shyly confronting a suffocating barrier of black, that really pushes McMillian’s work out into the spotlight, enabling its transition from blasé obscurity– paralleling so much that has been done already by antecedent mixed-media masters– to importance or at least to being pronounced in its own right. 

The show was also reviewed here by Hyperallergic. Seph Rodney’s article compares the MoMA PS1 exhibit to McMillian’s overlapping Views of Main Street at the Studio Museum in Harlem. While aptly reflecting on the quotidian nature of McMillian’s chosen materials (in addition to the bedsheets, he also plays with furniture), Rodney politicizes the pieces to such a frustratingly self-righteous extent that their aesthetic merits are completely overshadowed.

One comment

  1. Moselle, Thank you so much for this very informative and well written review. I am sorry to have missed the show. I can’t believe that you are such a talented writer and you’re still a high school student. Congratulations to you on another job well done. Much love, Joyce

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