The first major solo exhibition for Johnson, is a collage of materials, metaphors and metaphysics. In works spanning more than a decade Johnson explores the idea of creation, identity, self and art through the lens of African-American culture.
Born in Chicago in 1977 Rashid Johnson now lives and works in New York. His conceptual work, albeit heavily influenced by his own experiences growing up as an African-American in the late 70s and 80s, leaves room for interpretation. Contrary to any intentional fallacy the viewer can simply explore the works and start an individual and unique dialogue.
“Rashid Johnson’s unusual vocabulary of materials and innovative mixing of diverse forms and cultural references makes him one of the most vital and interesting artists working today,” says MAM chief curator and deputy director Tobias Ostrander.
Johnson’s oeuvre is a diverse collection of works including painting, photography, film, wood burn, mixed media installation and sculpture. He references icons from African-American culture like W.E.B. Du Bois, Miles Davis, Malcolm X and Public Enemy by incorporating books and records in his assemblages, installations and photography. Other references are made via music such as the soundtrack of Melvin Van Peebles’ indie film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” from 1971 into his video installation “Sweet Sweet Runner.” Allusions to Kung Fu movies, popular in the African American communities in the 80s, can be seen in his work as often as references to black scholars like socialist and Pan-Africanist Du Bois. A title such as “Triple Consciousness,” pays homage to Du Bois’ classic socio-historical essay compilation “The Souls of Black Folk” from 1903.
Some of Johnson’s most well known works are his portrait series, which he began in early 2000. The artist is inspired by the likes of American reformer, abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass and also depicts himself as various fictional members of the “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club.”
African-American cultural references are present throughout Johnson’s work whether in said references, use of text and/or objects as metaphors, or through the artist’s use of materials. He incorporates African shea butter and the use of black soap to paint, connoting a certain Afrocentricity common in the 70s and early 80s prior to the shift to capitalism in the US and hitherto a broader definition of black American culture and identity.
The use of graffiti denotes an affinity for urban culture as Johnson uses primarily gold spray paint as a means of communication in his work. Iconographic imagery, gun sights and bullet holes for example, are very common in Johnson’s installations, references to both the Black Power movement and the stereotypical depiction of hip hop culture by the mainstream media.
Johnson’s explorations of African-American identity are part of his concern with the fundamental nature of being and the world. Metaphysical and spiritual elements come into play as he questions humanity and existence as well as space and time especially in his more abstract recent work in which he creates an outer space or space of escape as a symbol of the unknown.
Johnson creates said space not just literally through the use of space in his paintings and installations but also through his interpretation of Abstract Expressionism. The idiosyncratic work leaves space for interpretation while still showing a clear imprint of the artist’s voice via appropriation and abstraction. Johnson reuses iconography, text and objects to create his work and thereby merges previous histories and connotations with his own interpretations, experiences and new meanings.
The use of mixed media and objects such as mirror tiles, soap, shea butter, plants, radios, books and records are as complex as ontology. The construction of identity is made up of many aspects, experiences and fragments of various cultures and all those pieces are presented in Johnson’s work. The histories, cultural connotations and every other aspect of identity and the place of humanity in the universe are encoded in the objects, materials and iconography ready to be taken and absorbed and read to become part of the universal dialogue on art, African-American culture and humanity.
“Message to Our Folks” is a retrospective as integral and experimental as the 1969 album of the same title by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The album is a jazz symphony combining the voices of over 500 instruments and Rashid Johnson’s oeuvre is an equally powerful symphony of art.
“Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks” will run at the Miami Art Museum until November 4th, 2012. 101 West Flagler Street, Miami. Miami-Dade Cultural Center. 305-375-3000 http://www.miamiartmuseum.org/