Momentum stalls at the ICA

Rodney McMillian’s show includes the huge painting “Untitled (4443 Prospect Ave.)’’ and sculptures including a chair pierced by a column (below). Rodney McMillian’s show includes the huge painting “Untitled (4443 Prospect Ave.)’’ and sculptures including a chair pierced by a column (below). (Photos By John Kennard)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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The latest “Momentum’’ exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the 14th in this series of small solo shows by up-and-coming contemporary artists, is underwhelming. And that’s putting it kindly.

Los Angeles-based Rodney McMillian, enjoying his first museum solo show in the United States, has tried to conjure up an image of the home - his own home - as a failed state.

He has resorted to an array of different media: a big wall painting, based loosely on the facade of his own house; some found or assembled sculptures (a punched-in refrigerator and a chair with a huge black column protruding through its seat), and a couple of videos, one showing the artist attacking a futon with a knife before methodically dismembering it, the other showing the artist dancing for more than 45 minutes to the looped tune of Diana Ross’s version of “I Loves You Porgy.’’

Most of this is easily contained within one small gallery. The overall effect is of boredom, strain, and misfiring metaphor: art itself, I was meanly tempted to think, as a “failed state.’’

The video “Untitled (futon)’’ shows McMillian taking a kitchen knife to a futon mattress that starts out folded up against a wall. It ends, 25 effortful minutes later, with the inner foam removed, rolled up, and battened down with tape.

There’s genuine violence, even anger, in McMillian’s repeated stabbing motions as he begins the gutting process. But as with so many of these one-act performance videos, the thing begins to drag, and one remains conscious throughout that it is a performance, something staged for us, the viewers, and intended to be taken as a metaphor.

A metaphor for what? Perhaps the other works will help us out:

The painting dominates one entire wall. At 30 feet long, it’s scaled to match the actual facade of McMillian’s Los Angeles house. Its shape is nondescript. McMillian’s paint, too, is deliberately unseductive - all black except for some red underpainting on the door and one window. (Are we supposed to think of blood and concomitant horrors? I’m not sure.)

More imaginative effort seems to have gone into the stained chair pierced by the black-painted column, with black paint pooling at its base. The image is violent, bold, and a little surreal. But it triggers few specific thoughts.

The refrigerator with the punched-in freezer door, meanwhile, emanates an aura of disturbance. But it, too, remains frustratingly mute. We get all the effect, with none of the underlying cause.

Are we to think of specific disasters, like domestic violence? Or more general ones, like sustained poverty? Is this uningratiating work a bold commentary on the reality of the American Dream, in this era of defaults and foreclosures, as Nicholas Baume, the ICA’s chief curator, would have us believe in his eloquent essay for the exhibit brochure?

I got the depressing feeling that distinctions between various disasters and injustices don’t much matter to McMillian. Which is fine, in one sense: He’s an artist, not a sociologist. But given the general disinclination to reflect on specific causes or even to conjure specific circumstances, his show as a whole starts to feel like an open-armed invitation to fall back on platitudes about discrimination and underprivilege.

Describing McMillian’s works as “brutal allegories of psychic and physical aggression,’’ as Baume does, is all very well. But allegory needs to provide more grip than this if it is going to convince us.

Three years ago McMillian made a splash with a painting of the facade of the Supreme Court - one of America’s great symbols of justice, its architecture harking back to the democracy of ancient Athens.

The canvas on which it was painted, in a marbled blue, was cut into the shape of the building and draped precariously on the wall. Its lower half spilled out onto the floor, like Dali’s melting clocks, spreading into a pool that resembled the leftovers of some as yet unencountered new flavor of ice cream.

In reference to this painting, which does not appear at the ICA, Baume writes, “Symbolic meaning, the painting suggests, can sometimes remain just that.’’ He’s talking about the symbolism of democracy and justice embodied in the Supreme Court building. But he unwittingly nails the problem with McMillian’s show: Unless it is more specific, more articulate, and more engaging, it is all just flaccid symbolism.

Coinciding with “Momentum 14,’’ the ICA has opened a new hang of selections ostensibly from its collection, a once-a-year event. Several favorites from the previous display, including Cornelia Parker’s suspended sculpture “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)’’ and Tara Donovan’s “Untitled (Pins),’’ have been reprised for another year. But a lot of the display is new.

The show is divided into three sections devoted to photography, sculpture, and painting. The photography section is the most effective. In one large gallery, we are treated to a distilled but compelling overview of several major strands of contemporary photography, including discreet groupings of work by Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman (a very condensed but surprisingly effective career survey), and Rineke Dijkstra, whose masterfully sensitive portraits appear deceptively simple. Strong, too, are pairings of work by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Roe Ethridge, and Gerald Byrne.

In the sculpture section, Donovan’s “Untitled (Pins)’’ is complemented by a new acquisition, the 2008 work “Nebulous.’’ Made from adhesive tape, it pitches the ethereality of transparent adhesive tape against the solidity of the floor, making material magic from modest means. But after an impressive video by Kader Attia that shows a pile of white sugar cubes dissolving under a pool of poured black oil, things rather fall off.

The total number of photographers is six; the sculptors are three, and the painters are - wait for it - one (four paintings by perennial ICA favorite Marlene Dumas).

By far the majority of the works are not actually in the museum’s permanent collection. Rather they are extended loans and, in a small number of cases, promised gifts, from a tight circle of ICA benefactors such as Barbara Lee, Marlene and David Persky, Beth and Anthony Terrana, and Sandra and Gerald S. Fineberg.

These collectors, it would seem, are in possession of some very fine art, and their willingness to lend and promise works is to be commended. But if these displays from the collection are going to be devoted to works that are not yet part of the ICA’s permanent holdings, why not rotate them more frequently, or expand the pool from which they are chosen?

For as the ICA extends the duration of its major exhibitions out to six months or more, it surely needs to find ways to attract regular visitors in the interim. Jazzing up the displays from the collection - or, more accurately, “the collection’’ - more often may be one way to do this. Offering more satisfying fare in its “Momentum’’ series may be another.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

MOMENTUM 14: Rodney McMillian


At: Institute of Contemporary Art, through Nov. 1 and July 18, 2010, respectively. 617-478-3100.

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