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Professor’s new exhibition explores homelessness, inequality in America

Professor Rodney McMillian’s abstract art exhibit, “In This Land,” will be on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until June 9. McMillian said the piece is meant to engage with the political and social ideologies that constitute American culture and the concept of home.
(Courtesy of Rodney McMillian and Vielmetter Los Angeles)

By Drake Gardner

April 28, 2019 11:36 p.m.

This post was updated May 4 at 11:21 a.m.

Home is a central concept of the American Dream, but Rodney McMillian said it continues to be inaccessible to many.

The widespread homelessness in America, can be caused by racial and financial disparity, and is expressed in McMillian’s abstract art exhibit, “In This Land.” Featured at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until June 9, the exhibit consists of an 88-by-14-foot panoramic painting spanning three walls, accompanied by speakers projecting politically charged sounds. McMillian, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Art, said the American Dream is often considered in broad terms and lacks a clear definition. In the exhibit, he aims to engage with the political and social ideologies that constitute American culture and perpetuate socioeconomic disparity.

“It’s not a painting to look like a specific location in the U.S., so there’s abstraction employed,” McMillian said. “The idea of the American Dream is fairly abstract.”

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According to an essay by Jenny Gheith, assistant curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, McMillian’s work utilizes vivid colors to represent features of a general landscape that are meant to engulf the viewer. The bright colors are painted atop a black background, which is supposed to represent blackness as an identity. The many American histories are encoded in how the dark background is layered behind the vibrant colors of the painting, Gheith said in her essay. The exhibit considers how America maintains racial and class inequality, she said.

Ariel Pittman works as a liaison for coordinating external exhibitions for artists part of the Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects art gallery. She said the work is significant because it is the first time McMillian has utilized an open-plains and rolling-hills landscape style. McMillian said his style for “In This Land” depicts wide-open land, which represents freedom and expansion.

“’In This Land’ reflects both a troublesome history and the promise and potential of repair,” Pittman said. “My hope is that this work might inspire more compassion and perhaps, if the right legislator encounters it, meaningful action to repair the systemic issues that perpetuate homelessness in this country.”

The concept of land and the American Dream is joined by a 17-minute soundscape on loop. The auditory supplement addresses socioeconomic issues in America, particularly homelessness, and includes reinterpretations of two 1980s songs – Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Home” from the musical “The Wiz.”

The former addresses the values of working-class Americans mostly through a white perspective, conveying the challenges of Vietnam War veterans who struggled to find work upon returning to America, McMillian said. He said “Born in the U.S.A.” made him think about how veterans faced homelessness and poor mental health care due to Reagan-era policies that cut funding for health care facilities.

Meanwhile “Home,” which was featured in an African American version of “The Wizard of Oz,” invokes the idea that homelessness is more than a simple lack of shelter, McMillian said. Home is a place where community and love abound and in which ideas are shared, and McMillian said he chose the song because the black community has often been denied the comforts associated with the concept of home.

[RELATED: Hammer Museum installation delivers vibrant, sensory experience]

In addition to the two songs, an interview with Tomiquia Moss is played to bolster this message, McMillian said. Moss, the CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Hamilton Families, often utilizes her commentary to depict homelessness as something a person experiences, rather than an aspect of their identity, Gheith said in her essay.

Moss’ interview recording addresses policies and socioeconomic disparities that have made it difficult for African Americans to become homeowners. Her commentary, paired with the abstract nature of the art, will allow viewers to consider for themselves what their responsibility is to diminish homelessness, Gheith said.

“In This Land” is so large it cannot be completely experienced at once, so viewers must take in the whole exhibit in portions during their visit, Gheith said. There is also not just one place to hear the commentary and songs – the sound plays everywhere in the exhibit, and people can even hear it at a low volume before and after leaving the space. She said these combined immersive elements show the landscape can have power over body and psyche.

McMillian said many people think about freedom and the promise of starting over again when they are presented with the American landscape, but hopes that “In This Land” will portray these beliefs as more complex.

“When you encounter my landscape you encounter it with ideas that you (bring) to it,” McMillian said. “And then you have to negotiate what’s being presented with what you understand to be reality.”

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