Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth


Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.


The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

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The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.


In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.


Amerikka: Cildo Meireles at Galerie Lelong


Amerikkka, 1991/2013

Next week is your last chance to Cildo Meireles’s exhibition at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea. In it, the Brazilian artist’s show-stopping installation Amerikkka draws you into the main gallery space where a rectangle of poised gold bullets loom over a field of pristine white eggs. The eggs are plaster and intended to be walked on. Entering the space between these opposed forces, the threat of bullets overhead and the uncomfortable sensation of walking on eggshells below, puts the viewer in a fragile, vulnerable position. The viewer is a stand-in for society at large, as the title suggests by merging the words “America” and “KKK” (Klu Klux Klan).


The visual appeal of long, perfectly rows of small things draws one in. Given the solid plaster nature of the eggs, the sense of threat is somewhat stymied. The tilt of bullet-ridden ceiling could be opening up, or clamping down. Is the KKK a current or past threat, something beginning or ending, or per the title, embedded unavoidably in ideas of America? Recent events incline me to the latter interpretation.


The other works on view are more playful, even when they also reference social problems, such as the recent work Aquaurum. Encased in a vitrine are two tall identical glasses–one filled with water and one filled with gold. Meireles refers to water shortages in São Paulo inn this piece, but it could also be read in terms of duality and the philosophy of perception.

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Pares impares, 2011/2013

Themes of duality and perception are evidenced in the two large rectangles of starkly different content in Amerikkka, but also in works like Pares ímpares(2011/13), where two sets of identical glasses lay in a vitrine, with cracked lens on one side lit from below like spiderwebs.

Cildo Meireles’s exhibition is up through June 27.



This Week’s Russian Hilarity in Two Videos

Tonight, a Russian Police choir sang the pop song “Get Lucky.” Either some are uncomfortable smiling in public, which might not appear dignified, or they do not know what smiling is. Your guess is as good as mine. Better video can be found here.

Earlier this week, two members of Pussy Riot appeared on the Colbert Report having recently been released from jail in Russia. They were fantastic. Better quality video here.