There has been a good deal of conversation in the last few years around the subject of Congressional district gerrymandering, a process by which the boundaries of an electoral constituency are manipulated to favor a political party or a class. This talk has been popular because gerrymandering subverts our representative democracy, and it is a precursor for ethnic and class-based disfranchisement. In visual art too, represented ideas can have rhetorical boundaries drawn around them to oblige a particular reading while other aspects of the work are ignored. The exhibitions, Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street, at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at MoMA PS1 feel like gerrymandered shows, though one is much less so than the other. They are both exhibitions where I’m staggered by the power of the artist’s work, but find that the didactic text attempts to limit my responses to obvious and restricted readings of McMillian’s work — full of signifiers that reference domesticity, race, and class, and more.
Take McMillian’s important “Chair” (2003) at the Studio Museum. It’s just that, only a chair — dirty and disheveled and listing to one side because of two broken legs, with the upholstery and supports all undone and exposed. You look at it long enough and your eyes may start to burn and the heart in your chest feel heavier for all the weight of that devastated object that you now want to relieve. You want to pick it up because it’s broken, and being broken, it’s an apt metaphor for everything else dwelling in urban environments that seems damaged or abandoned: infrastructure, people, institutions, entire neighborhoods. McMillian’s chair stinks of urban blight, so much so one can hardly look at it without thinking of the moment (if you remember it) that then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan visited the South Bronx to tag it as a poster child of governmental failure. With all its historical significance and abject appearance, “Chair” is a work that might break you.
Taking up the theme of political and social disfranchisement, the curator, Naima Keith, describes the exhibition’s theme as conveying that “the domestic sphere … is far from a site of belonging. It functions instead as a space where the wear and tear of hard-earned possessions become a powerful metaphor for continued racial and class prejudices.” But this is an impoverished reading.
The work also has to do with the passage of time and the nature of personal use and what we value as worth preserving, and clearly, the implications of belonging to someone. A chair is an intimate object that holds your body off the ground, takes your weight, thus allowing one to have moments where the responsibility for holding the body up is abdicated. A chair signifies repose within a particular, historicized epoch and notion of civilization, and the broken version of this object should not be limited to reading it through the valences of race and class. Indeed that worn linoleum and carpet of “Untitled” (2006) and “Untitled” (2011) suggest that domesticity is a kind of simultaneous wearing away of the substrate, and an accumulation of signs (stains and tears) that indicate use by a particular set of people in a particular time.