Artist Rodney McMillian discusses process

Los Angeles artist melds the political and artistic with keen performances

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Rodney Mcmillian/Courtesy

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Los Angeles-based artist Rodney McMillian uses unusual media, video, performances and speeches to carry his statements, which are often political and American-based, such as his unstretched, saggy portrayal of the U.S. Supreme Court building. He has shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and he is currently on faculty at UCLA.

On April 8, the campus department of art practice hosted a lecture by McMillian as a part of the Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

Daily Cal: I noticed that you got your BA in foreign affairs. What made you decide to go to art school after that?

Rodney McMillian: There were a lot of units towards my bachelors to an arts degree, but I love foreign affairs, and I’m still very much interested in the issues and politics around that. Basically, I deferred going to business school for one year to study art.

DC: I feel like a lot of kids now who are studying art feel obligated to double major or have a “backup plan.”

RM: I feel like anything that someone pursues with earnestness, passion and intellectual curiosity is valuable. So I guess my approach in terms of what one pursues … is more about an intellectual curiosity and to dive right in and give 106% of one’s interest.

DC: Do you think that being on faculty at UCLA has changed you as a person and an artist?

RM: I think everything changes us. So yes, it has. I think if we are open, we evolve with positions and the things that we do. In terms of me working at UCLA, I am very committed to being someone who shares my experiences and information with other people, so it has made me very conscientious about how I communicate with people. I read a lot more and am much more interested and engaged about what is going on in younger peoples’ lives. I am learning a lot from them, and I’m hoping that they are learning from me. It’s quite a ‘quid pro quo’ kind of experience — that’s what I find teaching to be, anyway. It’s really quite remarkable what everyone can learn when they are in the space to learn. ]

DC: Jumping into your work, politics and history are very clear in your works, especially a performative aspect. I found that you use speeches a lot, including from Reagan or Lyndon B. Johnson. What makes speech a powerful tool or technique in your art?

RM: (With) the speeches, I am very interested in how we understand and think about history. So much of history is a type of fiction in certain ways. One thing that the speeches can provide is a kind of context of a time period. I’m also interested in the aesthetics of the speeches, because it tends to speak to the culture in terms of what a person thinks a community or a society should hear or wants to hear — and also how they choose to speak to us as citizens. That really fascinates me, as well as the content, of course. The content is also quite cementing. With the “Great Society” speech, I was really moved by how the speech was written but also the content and the issues that were being addressed then — they are still issues that we are grappling with today.

… The Reagan speech again had the same kind of cultural word and … language that shapes those conflicts, (which) were very much present in his Neshoba County speech in Mississippi. A lot of that language was still used in the past election in 2012. I am interested in these speeches to see aspects that we’ve evolved and have learned from certain language, whether it is used to manipulate or used to inspire, also just to point out the policies have shifted, if they have at all. ]

DC: You pull out a lot of details that are forgotten in history. The example I am thinking of is that a lot of people don’t know that Gladys Knight co-wrote with Barbra Streisand “The Way We Were,” (which McMillian performed as part of his Michael Jackson Project in 2003 to 2004). Why focus on the details that are left out?

RM: My interest in the gaps, in terms of what perhaps is not known, comes from my interest in history. History is a top-down business. There are so many people who affect history on a daily basis, but their voices are only cited. Their actions or voices are helping form history that we know but aren’t always present. There are also a lot of perspectives omitted from history.

In terms of Gladys Knight, I thought it was important — that version I knew quite well — and also knew that she was quite instrumental in Michael Jackson’s career. So I thought that link was important, especially with the content of the song.

DC: So in your process, did you come across the song first or pick MIchael Jackson as a subject first? In your process in general, do you tend to pick a medium or technique first that inspires you to make a statement, or do you have a target first?

RM: I usually have a pretty good idea about what I am interested in communicating. From that interest, I do research. I also play around in the studio and things like that, but the work is often generated from an idea.

DC: You use a lot of different media. Is there a new medium or technique that you are looking to use next?

RM: I am working hard to expand my understanding about performance in certain ways and certain skills that can be used for performance. I am also just trying to push myself with whatever it is I am working on or with, in terms of materials, to figure out the most effective way to communicate them.

DC: Could you give an example of some of those performance skills?
RM: Like if someone uses their voice, it’s like, ‘How can I work with my voice as a tool?’ Or if someone uses their body — how do you use your body? If someone works with other performers, how does one become a more effective communicator in terms of what the ideas are and collaborating with them in that way? There are different ways that I am working to learn.

DC: What do you hope that your performances do to viewers?

RM: It really depends on the context or what the idea is. In each performance that I have done, there is a different interest that I am trying to tease out, which require a different skill set, intents and purpose.

With the Michael Jackson Project video, it was really important to have the affect of that song emoted. It required a lot of rehearsal and quite a lot of listening to the song — (to) the cadences of the voice and the timing of it — and really being present throughout that song. That was quite a contrast to something like a political speech, which is really about the effect of delivering a speech in a way that isn’t necessarily a representation of a politician but an embodiment of someone who is passionate about what they are trying to deliver to an audience.

DC: Have any audience reactions to your work surprised you? What has surprised you the most?

RM: I’m always surprised. I don’t have anything that surprises me the most. Maybe ‘surprise’ is not the proper word, but I am always intrigued in how different individuals or groups of people interpret the ideas that I have that are being presented in work.

DC: What is next for you?

RM: Right now I am working on a larger project that’s requiring a lot of research, and I am excited to be in the midst of that.

DC: Can you tell me what the project is about?

RM: I think that is about enough (laughs).

DC: What are your plans for Berkeley?

RM: The setup is that I give a talk Monday evening, and the next day I do about four to five studio visits. I am looking forward to meeting a lot of the students and seeing what they are up to — and any faculty there who I haven’t met before!

I’m just looking forward to being in the area for a skinny minute. I teach Monday and fly out after class, and Tuesday I fly out in the afternoon for a Wednesday morning class.

A.J. Kiyoizumi covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected]. Check her out on twitter at @Ajkazoo.