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.


Post-black #2: Kerry James Marshall and William Pope.L




The top three photos are from Kerry James Marshall’s show Dollar for Dollar at Jack Shainman this past fall, and the bottom photos from William Pope.L’s show that was up around this same time at Mitchell-Innes and Nash.  (Also, make sure you check out Pope.L’s cool website.) I was thinking about these shows because of my recent post on Rashid Johnson. I got hung up on the term “post-black” a few months back (and actually ended up writing one of my research papers for grad school on Glenn Ligon because of it). In my last post, I wrote about post-black in generational terms. Both Marshall and Pope.L were born in 1955 to Ligon’s 1960, making them of the same generation, prior to Rashid Johnson’s “post-black” work. The immediate implication of that statement being that the work of these artist is about blackness in a direct, intentional way, which, while no doubt true, seems like an unfair simplification of a complex theme.


When Thelma Golden wrote about post-black for the exhibition she curated at the Studio Museum in 2001, I don’t think she meant to imply a post-racial world (which was Time Magazine’s interpretation of her phrase) as much as that a black artist of my generation could make work unlimited by being made by a “black artist.” Maybe, but I don’t think that the Rashid Johnson show displayed that kind of freedom. Don’t get me wrong: I wish we had all moved into Pope.L’s alternate universe of various rainbow-colored people, although certainly without the darker, satirical side of these stereotypes writ large.




Post-black #1: Rashid Johnson at the High Museum, Atlanta


Whatever I might think of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art’s for-profit status and high ticket prices and its dumbed-down (numbed-down) blockbusters (curatorial snoozefests of the treasures of the Old World), it has continued to represent African American and folk artists well over the years, and the recent show of Rashid Johnson, Message to our Folks, was no exception. Message to Our Folks, whose title comes from 70’s-era, African-American literature, consists of photography and mixed-media sculptural installations that combines a personal interpretation of a retro-funk aesthetic with contemporarily styled artistic interventions and references to African American culture.


By looking backward at these earlier conceptions of blackness, Johnson positions himself clearer in a later, distanced position that takes blackness as its subject matter. Johnson’s work is deliberately generational, couched in terms of his parent’s blackness versus his own. This distinctly personal voice thus refrains from defining, even while thematizing, blackness and factors in the artist’s own subjectivity.


I was reading the exhibition catalog, and in it, contemporary African American artist Glenn Ligon characterized this work by Johnson as “post-black.” This term, which caught currency after Thelma Golden of the Whitney Museum used it in a 2001 show, describes an African American artist does not categorize or define his or her work as being about race, even though it is very much still a theme. The way Ligon wrote about it struck me off, since he puts his own work in the “black” category, and it puts Johnson in the “post-black” category. It’s the generational element repeated: implying the Johnson is more free in how he can deal with such topics.

Yet I think its hard to get away from the fact that, unlike, say post-modernism which came after Modernism, post-black implies a condition after being black, but what would that be exactly? What then does that original term “black” mean? I saw a couple shows in Chelsea this Fall that also speak to the notions of “black” and “post-black,” and I want to write about those next.