September 26 – December 5, 2020
In the fall of 1977, medical students at Howard University prepared to dissect the anonymous corpse of a Black man that had been sent to them through a lottery administered by the District of Columbia’s Medical Examiner’s Office. This man was Casper Yeagin, a 68-year-old mechanic who had vanished on September 11, much to the distress of his sister, Pearlie Smith, and his niece, Minnie Champ. From the moment of his death (of still unknown causes), Yeagin’s body was treated callously by the police and medical personnel: law enforcement never filed Smith and Champ’s missing persons report, and Yeagin was deposited at Howard as a specimen despite the fact that his pants pocket contained the phone number of a nephew.
Rodney McMillian’s new show at Vielmetter Los Angeles, Body Politic, springs from such histories of the medical exploitation of Black people in the United States. His bright paintings and huge black sculptures of body parts, which together assess American Abstract Expressionism, are inspired by the groundbreaking work of scholars Dorothy Roberts and Harriet A. Washington. The former wrote about the eugenic controls of Black people and the latter authored the 2006 book Medical Apartheid, which sets forth the above story about Mr. Yeagin and also documents research conducted on Black prisoners.
McMillian delves into these human rights offenses by smearing his paintings full of rich, vibrant colors reminiscent of Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann, and layering over these phantasmagorias with text. In Anatomical Acquisitions (2020), we see a slop of green layered at the bottom of a canvas. It is topped with a long, mottled clump of red and blue, suggestive of a liver or heart. A blood-red blotch stigmatizes the canvas’s upper left corner and is in turn surmounted by a veiny haze of red splatters. Inscribed over this crime scene is a quote taken from Washington’s book, where the author reveals that in c. 1831 the South Carolina Medical College asserted that Black enclaves offered hospitals “great opportunities for the acquisition of anatomical knowledge.” McMillian extends this merger of abstraction with medical historiography in Mississippi Appendectomy (2020), an explosive ink and acrylic work that targets the 1920s–’30s practice of forcibly sterilizing Black women. Mississippi Appendectomy consists of a green, black, and yellow blot, evoking Jackson Pollock’s poured works, but also infected and torn flesh. Hovering within this wound is a bruise of purple, grey, and orange, wherein McMillian quotes the findings of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil and voting rights activist, who reported that “in 1965…60 percent of the Black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi were subject to postpartum sterilizations…without their permission.”
McMillian’s blending of medical barbarism with the history of Abstract Expressionism proves a brilliant connection: white male American artists such as Pollock, Hofmann, Rothko, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell began achieving superstardom in the 1940s and the 1950s. During that period “America” was tempted to regard Abstract Expressionism not as an insistence on living and being in the face of genocide—as Lee Krasner’s “Little Image” series (1946–1950) or, certainly, Helen Frankenthaler’s Holocaust (1955) may well be interpreted. Rather, as longtime Rothko representative Arne Glimcher has said about misguided responses to the art of Rothko, there exists a “prevailing interpretation” of these works as sunny and joyous. Even in its complexity, abstractionism did not expose the bloody and high-definition details of homegrown outrages, such as the US’s schemes of segregation and domination. Perhaps this dilemma was best articulated by Walter White, the head of the NAACP, who in 1948 asked “How can you talk about German racism as long as you maintain separate white and black armies?”
In ways that resonate with Doreen Garner’s dissection of the racist history of gynecology and monuments (in her White Man on a Pedestal, a study of the “father of gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims) McMillian demands that we examine the ways in which American racism is abstracted and blurred over with lies about our past. His decision to pair his annotated abstractions with his sculptures of giant organs created out of chicken wire and black cloth makes his argument all the more compelling. Untitled (entrails) (2019–20) is a massive set of black intestines that have been eviscerated from a victim and hung on a meat hook. Black dick (2017–20) is a looming crushed phallus. Rendered with the realism of a broken anatomical doll and unmistakable in their meaning, these constructions focus in on what it means, exactly, to lose your body and your life at the hands of white supremacy. McMillian’s critique extends not only to the medical establishment but also to the highest reaches of government in his painting Inside the 1st President’s mouth (2020), a flaming acrylic-on-paper that looks like blood and putrescence. The artist reminds us here that George Washington’s famous wooden false teeth were actually a set of dentures created out of canines and incisors yanked out of the mouths of living slaves, and that the medical pillage of Black people has been a tradition in this country since its founding. Stories like Casper Yeagin’s are not historical artifacts, but examples of abuse that extend into the present day. In an age that sees allegations of forced sterilizations of immigrant women at a Georgia detention center, and a de facto medical experimentation being visited upon essential workers who are forced to work in this pandemic without adequate safety gear, McMillian offers us a devastating message and reminder.