Rodney McMillian puts landscapes to bed in Aspen Art Museum show |

Rodney McMillian puts landscapes to bed in Aspen Art Museum show

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"Blue Sun," Rodney McMillian.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: Rodney McMillian, ‘Landscape Paintings’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through June 28

More info:

Rodney McMillian’s solo exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum is titled “Landscape Paintings,” but the name is bit of a trick. The works don’t necessarily depict land, sky, mountains and the features that “landscape” suggests. Whether they’re even “paintings” is up for debate: McMillian has poured gallons upon gallons of swirled paint, creating three-dimensional, arguably sculptural pieces.

These abstract blobs of paint on sheets, bedspreads and blankets instead offer the landscape left on a bed when the inhabitant or inhabitants are absent.

“I’m interested in what’s not there,” McMillian said at the show’s opening. “My use of the bedding is locating the body in a domestic space, and the bedding also points to issues around class — bedding also goes to the pleasures we have in bed like sleep, reading, sex.”

The Los Angeles-based artist’s work has rarely stuck to a single medium. It’s traversed performance, video, installation, sculpture and painting — often combining a few media. Though he began as a painter in graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts, “Landscape Paintings” marks McMillian’s first solo painting show.

“I’ve had an antagonistic relationship with painting, yet I’ve done it from the beginning,” he said.

The works in the Aspen show were made between 2007 and 2015, the last of them drying in late February. He collected from thrift stores — some carry price tags and remnants of their former owners. McMillian uses house paint purchased at stores such as Home Depot — a practice that began when he was low on cash early in his career but that’s persisted as part of his aesthetic.

Working on these pieces, McMillian said, became a working part of his studio practice over the year. As he focused on installations and performances, he’d pull these out every few months, add to and manipulate them to inform his other projects.

“It took awhile to feel settled with what was going on in them and to understand them,” he said.

Draped loosely from wall tacks, often spilling thick and hardened paint onto the museum floor, this series aims to look at the broader landscape of experience, starting from a place we all inhabit at least some of the time: bed.

“I’ve always been interested in domestic spaces because they’re great locators for conversations about class and taste and how we use materials,” McMillian said.

Entering the conversation with these pieces beyond their abstraction takes a bit of effort. “Untitled for Francine Hughes,” for instance, uses rich Rothko-like reds covering every inch of a bed sheet. It takes its title from Farrah Fawcett’s character in the 1977 TV movie “The Burning Bed,” a drama about domestic violence. With that information, the blood red and fire red on a rumpled bed sheet take on a darker, more menacing meaning.

“There are Veins in These Lands,” another work of deep reds upon deep reds, has ropelike lines running through it that could represent literal veins. They cast shadows, though, that also could suggest land as represented in a topographical map. A thick pour of paint cascades off of the sheet, down the wall and onto the floor (watch your step walking through this show).

A second work of the same name offers the closest thing to a traditional landscape in McMillian’s show. In it, an abstracted sun shines above a tangle of shadowy, tree-like forms.

“There’s a lot of abstraction in the work, but a lot of abstraction for me is actually representation,” McMillian explained. “It’s complex and it shifts. It shifts for me because I’m always shifting — I’m not always thinking in a political way.”

The arrangement of the paintings together is the doing of the museum. McMillian didn’t make them or conceive them in relation to one another and has never hung them side by side before. So seeing the Aspen exhibition — in a downstairs gallery at the museum — was a discovery for McMillian.

“I haven’t seen them all together like this,” he said. “This is the first time that I’m kind of letting go, and it really feels good.”

The show makes excellent use of the museum’s smallest gallery — a basement space that hasn’t served all of its shows well since the new building opened last summer. The tight quarters suit McMillian’s spewing, hefty canvases, however, creating an immersive experience in his world of massive saturated sheet landscapes. Wherever you turn, they wash over you — often two and three at a time.

The museum is publishing a book on the show with essays by McMillian, Museum of Modern Art Associate Curator Thomas Lax and Aspen Art Museum Director Heidi Zuckerman, due out this summer. McMillian will be back in Aspen in June for a book-signing event and to lead a workshop at the museum