Rashid Johnson Update
Since his 2009 solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Rashid Johnson’s career has steadily and smoothly advanced. It wasn’t always like that. In Spring 2013, IRAAA+ charted the sometimes rocky rise of Rashid Johnson as background for our coverage of the Sam Gilliam exhibition that Johnson curated at Kordansky Gallery. The following is an update to the previous coverage.
Rashid Johnson’s first solo exhibition in Switzerland, The Gathering, runs November 2 to December 21, 2013, Hauser & Wirth Gallery, Zürich. Gathered are a dozen new works of sculpture, painting and video including a new series of abstract portraits which Johnson refers to as “characters.”
To make these “characters,” Johnson begins with a panel made from wood flooring, arranged in a geometric composition and sprayed with gold enamel paint. He then takes a blow torch to the surface and burns off almost all of the paint, leaving behind a golden aura with hints of other colours left by the paint residue. Using this surface as his canvas, the artist applies his signature black soap and wax mixture, creating a gestural form that resembles a figure. The abstracted form of these ‘characters’ was inspired in part by Johnson’s recent re-reading of Albert Camus’ L‘Étranger, in particular a memorable scene in which the rays of the sun obscure Meursault’s vision of the Arab.
Figuration has played a significant role in Johnson’s work since the earliest days of his career – in a series of photographic portraits of homeless men in Chicago – but here it finds a place in his painting practice for the first time. A group of ‘characters’ of different scales gather in a single room of the exhibition, suggesting the ‘gathering’ that the artist refers to in the exhibition’s title.
The exhibition also includes several new wood wall sculptures with shelves supporting found objects. Marking a departure from his previous wood wall works, in this exhibition Johnson makes the edges of the works uneven, revealing the wooden floor boards from which the panels are made. With shamanistic inspiration from both African American and art history, many of Johnson’s works employ materials in a way that suggests an indefinite form of mysticism and a role as devotional objects, and these sculptures suggest a use as altars or shrines. In fact, the artist has said that he likes the idea of these objects literally being put to use: the books on the shelves being read and contemplated, the shea butter being rubbed on elbows, the records being played, and so forth.
Everybody’s a Star is a new black mirror work that Johnson has created for his Zurich show, and is his largest to date. Comprised of hundreds of pieces of black mirrored tile, the surface is splattered and built up with black soap and wax on two planes: first on the floor, with the artist standing above, pouring onto and working into the mirrored panels below; and then on the wall, the drips down the face of the work bearing witness to this axial shift.
Hanging on the gallery’s back wall is The Hour of Chaos, a large gridded steel structure, displaying a vinyl album, shea butter, books and plants. These objects are reminiscent of relics or offerings; the outline of the shelves echoing the lines of a constructivist painting. On the floor near this sculpture sits a work comprising of a Persian rug, a material the artist has employed in recent years, piled with oversized blocks of shea butter and resting below an array of plants hanging from the ceiling. Originating from Africa, shea butter is admired for its soothing and healing properties. The Persian rug refers both to psychoanalysis (Johnson is struck by the abundance of them in photographs of Sigmund Freud’s office) and to his personal history, as his wife is of Iranian descent. The notion of nurture is carried forward with the artist’s installation of palm and spider plants that hang from the gallery ceiling, encompassing works and leading visitors through the gallery space beneath a living canopy.
Johnson’s most recent video work, Samuel in Space is presented on a monitor placed on another rug in the centre of the main gallery space. Filmed in Marfa, Texas, Samuel in Space continues a trajectory that began with The New Black Yoga, a dance-like movement piece originally inspired by Johnson’s attempts to learn yoga while in Berlin, where his inability to understand German thwarted both his physical and intellectual mastery of the poses. Shot on location in and around Marfa, Samuel in Space depicts a black male dancer moving (or tumbling) through the high desert at sunrise, seemingly laying claim to and revelling in the landscape.
Johnson’s recent solo exhibitions include New Growth, Ballroom Marfa, TX (2013); Shelter, South London Gallery, London, England (2012); Rumble, Hauser & Wirth New York NY (2012) and the major touring survey exhibition Message to Our Folks which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago IL (2012) and travelled to Miami Art Museum, Miami FL (2012), High Museum of Art, Atlanta GA (2012) and most recently Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis MO, where it will be on view until January 2014.
Rashid Johnson Curates Sam Gilliam from Spring 2013 IRAAA+
Between 2001 when his work was represented in the Studio Museum of Harlem’s career-launching, Freestyle show that to 2011, Rashid Johnson gamely tried his hand at photographic and installation art, persisting in the wake of occasional, thumbs-down from critics.
During that decade, Johnson returned to school for a graduate degree, made course corrections in his work and moved to New York. The 10-year period of experimentation led to “The Year of Rashid Johnson” as we termed it in an IRAAA article — 2012, a year of major exhibitions and awards. (The “Year of Rashid Johnson” article is reproduced below.)
Johnson persisted through fumbling, rummage shop assemblages to perfect his concept. And now his installation art of potted green plants, gilded rocks, mirrored tiles and open, black shelf systems generate an ambiance of uber, 20th-century modernism while also evoking a sense of ancient, future and timeless mysteries.
With his star now fully established in the art world firmament, Johnson has ventured into a new realm: organizing exhibitions. Sam Gilliam: Hard-Edge Paintings 1963-1966 curated by Rashid Johnson, opened on March 28, 2013 at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles and ran through May 11, 2013.
Like Johnson, Sam Gilliam rose to national prominence as he was transitioning from early to mid-career. This transition for Gilliam was concurrent with his move from being a leading exponent of the Washington School of color field painting to the installation-based drape paintings for which he is best known.
Rashid Johnson has been a fan of Sam Gilliam's work since he was a student. “When David Kordansky and Rashid Johnson began working together four or five years ago, Sam Gilliam was one of the first artists they bonded over,” explains Stuart Krimko, the gallery's director.
“Rashid suggested that the gallery do a show, and that has evolved into a fuller collaboration in which the gallery is now representing Sam.”
Krimko also described the opening and the response of artists to the show. “The turnout was very strong, many curators and collectors traveled to Los Angeles for the occasion, as did Sam and his family, including children and grandchildren. There were also numerous young artists, some of whom were encountering Sam's work for the first time.”
He also said that other artists have been thrilled to learn about Sam, and also this body of work. "I think for young artists especially it's fascinating to see the work of an artist from a previous generation from the beginning of his career, to see how he was responding to the vocabularies that were around him, how he adjusted them and transformed them for his own ends, and how those decisions would evolve into the later works.”
Thirty one installation views of Sam Gilliam: Hard-Edge Paintings 1963-1966 are on the Gallery’s main page.
Rashid Johnson Coup d'état ran September 22, 2012 — November 10, 2012 at the David Kordansky Gallery. Sixty-six views of Johnson’s work are on the Gallery’s artist pages.
The Year of Rashid Johnson
(From the print IRAAA, vol. 23, no. 4, summer 2012)
2012 is shaping up to be the year Rashid Johnson rockets to pre-eminence. In his overall, decade-long body of work the artist combines the green fronds of potted plants, gilded rocks, black-painted furniture; vintage-styled photographic; self-portraiture; nostalgic LP covers and old, rare books to evoke a mystique — not a faithful documentation of African American intellectual and cultural history. As his work matured, some of it drew stinging criticism as being facile, self-centered and “cute.” However the power of the fully coalesced mystique is now broadly recognized.
The momentum began last November when the Guggenheim Museum named Johnson one of six finalists for the 2012 Hugo Boss prize. The prize recognizes artists living anywhere in the world for work that represents a significant development in contemporary art. The award will be announced in Fall 2012.
Also last fall, Johnson’s Vanderzee-like photographic portrait of himself as a member of a secret society of dead lecturers (i.e., black intellectuals) was the featured artwork in promotional media for the 30 Americans exhibition which opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The New York-based artist began the year with a bang: In January and February, Hauser & Wirth New York presented Johnson’s RUMBLE, an exhibition of new works. A lifelong prizefighting fan, Johnson found source ideas in the famous I974 “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Africa. RUMBLE investigated how aggression, humor, art, neurosis, alternative languages and invisible codes shape identity in our culture.
In February, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art named Johnson the 2012 recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize. This annual prize recognizes a scholar or artist whose work makes an original and important contribution to the field of African American art or art history. It delivers a cash award of $25,000 and is restricted to those at the beginning or middle of their careers.
In April, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago opened Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, his first solo exhibition at a major museum (through August 5, 2012). Exhibition curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm says that Johnson “prefers to create a sense of wonder in the unknown rather than a concrete understanding of his art.” The show surveys the artist’s 10-year output with an emphasis on recent work. Johnson also debuts new work, including one that was commissioned for the exhibition. A fully illustrated catalog, the most comprehensive documentation of Johnson’s work to date, accompanies the exhibition.
In summer 2012, the Guggenheim will publish a book featuring the work of Rashid Johnson and the other five 2012 Hugo Boss Prize finalists.
September takes new works by the Johnson to Los Angeles, where the David Kordansky Gallery will feature him in a solo exhibition.
In October another solo Johnson exhibition opens in the United Kingdom at the South London Gallery.
The ultimate victory for Johnson remains undecided. At stake are the prestigious Hugo Boss prize of $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2013. (The prize was awarded to Danh Vo, b. 1975, Bà R?a, Vietnam).
Rashid Johnson was born in 1977 in Chicago. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Columbia College of Chicago in 2000. Johnson attracted attention as one of the artists featured in the 2001 Freestyle showcase at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2004 to 2005 before moving to New York.