ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE
Review

How white tables set with black vases serve as a reminder of the struggle for civil rights

Rodney McMillian’s latest exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects is perfect for election season. At its center is an installation that delves into the legacy (or lack thereof) of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American female presidential candidate. It’s a welcome reminder of how far we have not come.

The viewer is greeted by a large, rather austere arrangement of white tables, each bearing a collection of glass vases spray painted matte black. The tables are arrayed around a large, shiny black lump, humped like a beetle’s carapace, in the center of the room. Irregular and organic, it appears to have welled up inexorably out of the floor.

Above, old-fashioned public address speakers are suspended from the ceiling. They play a recording of a 1972 speech Chisholm gave at UCLA. Her impassioned words interlock with a jazz soundtrack sampled from Alice Coltrane and Sonny Sharrock.

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Chisholm was an impassioned, irrepressible advocate for women’s rights, civil rights and coalitions built across racial and gender lines. Her speech, in particular her laments against the mistreatment of people of color and women, sounds like it could have been delivered today (were a leader brave enough to do so). We hear her fierce criticisms of the stereotypes she battled in her own life, and of a political system that values reelection over real change.

Rodney McMillian, "shelf #11,” 2016. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
Rodney McMillian, "shelf #11,” 2016. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. (Robert Wedemeyer)

With Chisholm’s forceful voice reverberating in one’s ears, it’s hard not to see the vases as an audience: receptacles for sympathetic vibrations. They feel like the orderly, genteel forms of the inchoate black mass at the center, the discrete, predefined shapes that politics-as-usual prefers. Perhaps they emanated from that tarry lump, or are drawn toward it, looking to become a part of something larger.

A similar contrast occurs aurally as Chisholm’s clear, strong words form a counterpoint with the loose rhythms and dissonances of free jazz. The installation not only pays homage to her continuing relevance, it charts a tension between familiar boundaries and what might be possible if they shattered.

The next room contains three quotes printed on the walls: one from Chisholm about coalition politics, and one each from scholars Michele Wallace (on black feminist creativity) and Avery F. Gordon (on the complex ways in which power operates). They feel a bit like filler, but they provide context and space for contemplation before proceeding to the final room of the exhibition.

Here, McMillian has constructed a floor-to-ceiling curtain that stretches across the entire gallery, bowing out toward the viewer. It is black, covered in vertical black stripes splattered with dark grays and purples. Although it doesn’t move, it does seem to breathe, an impression fostered by a vocal rendition of Earth Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” playing in the room. The piece feels like a bellows or an enormous diaphragm. There’s also something operatic and sublime about it: It’s impossible to see all of it at once, and it is more felt than viewed.

The piece is titled “a prism,” although there’s no light refracted here. Rather, it suggests there might also be a spectrum to be found within darkness.

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Rodney McMillian

Where: Susanne Vielmetter, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: Through Oct. 15; closed Sundays and Mondays

Information: (310) 837-2117, www.vielmetter.com

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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