The Black Show forms an extended meditation on the United States in patterns cut by class, economic status, culture, race, gender, and history. It brings together a tightly focused selection of new and recent work that offers black-ness as subject, form, process, emotion, and politics. The exhibition pivots around approximately 45 minutes of coordinated video, marking the most extensive use of this medium by McMillian to date. Additionally, in late spring McMillian’s off-site performance, Hanging with Clarence, offers an engagement with history as a dark, messy, and incomprehensible material that must be remembered and reformed.
Having studied foreign affairs at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate, McMillian is deeply attuned to the social systems, economic forces, and policy deci-sions that shape our histories, bodies, and minds; these forces appear regularly as inspiration, subject, and form. McMillian engages these disembodied forces directly to make physical these abstractions. One way is through the use of post-consumer products and everyday materials in his paintings and sculptures.
These systems and forces also find form through the protagonists of his performances and videos. These char-acters are the spirits of history: an axe-wielding Nat Turner, for instance, leader of an infamous 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, now dressed in a hazmat suit and an Iron Man mask, taunting a house at Dockery Farms. Or a ventriloquist puppet who perches on a front porch pantomiming a notori-ous recording of Republican election strategist Lee Atwater, revealing the Southern strategy (to fuel irrational racism amid working class whites) that would help propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.
In The Black Show the first such character is an old-fashioned preacher, and his nighttime sermon sets the tone. Borrowing words from jazz composer Sun Ra, the sharp-tongued wordplay sets peace and death into taut—if starkly fatalistic—cohabitation. From this lesson onward unnerving encounters multiply throughout the videos: a silent figure—part Ultraman, part cassock-garbed priest—beats a deep organic rhythm into fleeting focus, and elsewhere winds a stoic path from South Carolina to Harlem, New York. An earnestly hopeful man reads a beloved A.A. Milne children’s tale to a dilapidated Dockery, Mississippi, home absent of children. A solitary figure tends to gravestones. A camouflaged mercenary drags himself through tall grass, hoarsely intoning the Rolling Stones bleak 1969 hit “Gimme Shelter” as death rattle. These five figures go unidentified by proper names, functioning instead as archetypes. Portrayed by McMillian, they become flesh and blood embodiments of forces that lurk in the United States land-scape. The implications are precise. Both a dedicated desire for a different state born out of deep-seated structural malevolence, and a lament for where we are today relative race and class and what used to be called the opportunity of a good life. McMillian draws the influence of science fiction on top of this political environment as a social force for envi-sioning places where fantastic transformation is one path to unraveling injustices.
The influence of science fiction is felt in the otherworldly pacing of the videos and in the jarring juxtapositions of form in the paintings and sculptures that surround them. Many moons (2015) is a seventy-foot long painting made specifically for The Black Show. The loose architectural hanging emphasizes its fantastical landscape as it bends, curves, and transforms the space. Additionally two works from 2013, Wild Seed and Wizard ( for Doro), directly ref-erence speculative fiction author Octavia Butler, whose stories regularly address the oppressive forces of power with figures who battle self-destructive urges and social patterns. Of particular note here, Butler’s novel Wild Seed (1980) disregards the usual trappings of science fiction— space ships, far-flung solar systems, advanced technology— to tell the tale of two African immortals, Doro and Anyanwu. Over centuries of conflict, through slave trade and segre-gated communities spanning Africa to the United States, these two characters use their distinct shape-shifting powers to breed and build colonies of super humans. The communities are not utopian, though they do model new opportunities for society out of the sorrow-filled routines of history. Science fiction here is a method for twisting accepted histories into unanticipated trajectories. Likewise, McMillian’s works are sewn, gathered, and otherwise crafted from common matter around us: vinyl, plaster, paper, thread, chicken wire, burlap, zippers, bed sheets, children’s stories, pop songs, and history. We can recognize the efforts and methods by which their transfor-mation occurs: visible stitching and raw edges throughout. And at times the sculptures extend into shapes that recall torsos, lungs, bellies, wounds, or orifices. Taken together, the sagginess, tautness, and encumbered weights of McMillian’s art in turn reminds us that the United States can proclaim (in the words of the dust jacket copy of Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, first edition ): “This is a love story—except there isn’t much love in it. It’s also a fairy tale—except only the fondest nightmares come true. It’s a murder story—except the victim lives. It’s not only a black story—it’s a very dark one.” Luckily, this country is not yet a finished story.
— Anthony Elms, Chief Curator