Friday, May 11, 2012

Rashid Johnson Exhibition Review

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, currently on view at the MCA Chicago, is Chicago-born, New York-based artist Rashid Johnson’s first major solo exhibition. The title of the exhibition, which references jazz group Art Ensemble Chicago’s 1969 album of the same name, inaugurates two themes that permeate the exhibition: conversation and identity. By establishing the conceit of “our folks,” Johnson raises the question of collective identity and underlines the very notion that a type of shared personhood exists. “Message,” of course, implies communication. The entire exhibition, which surveys the past decade of Johnson’s work, revolves around this discourse of black identity. Through photographs, paintings, sculptures, and video, Johnson explores his own past and position within this framework. Through his own, personal exploration, Johnson’s work more broadly encourages viewer self-reflection and awareness.

The themes of the exhibition are immediately apparent upon entering the exhibition space. On the floor of the first gallery, the wooden planks are branded with black cultural iconography, from the Public Enemy crosshairs to black fraternity emblems and diamonds/bling. Although the symbols refer to cultural entities—from hip-hop to the larger practice of graffiti and mark-making—they inauspiciously recall the historical branding of African slaves. As the viewer moves through the gallery space, they are visually reminded with each step, of the loaded history that Johnson navigates as he progresses with his practice.

In one corner of the first gallery, a video entitled Sweet Sweet Runner plays. In the video, Johnson references Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which portrays a black man on the run from white authorities.[1] In Johnson’s rendition, however, the protagonist simply jogs around Central Park. By running for himself and his fitness, the man in Johnson’s video subverts a stereotype and replaces it with a sense of individual agency that appears again and again throughout the exhibition.
Confronting the viewer most conspicuously in the first gallery is Johnson’s The Promoter, a towering mirror divided into jarring geometric fragments and splashed with melted black wax. The scale of the mirror circumvents viewer avoidance, and in order to proceed onward to the next gallery, museum-goers cannot bypass glancing into the mirror. When they do, it is impossible to synthesize a clear image of themselves; rather, they see their bodies splintered into discontinuous pieces, an overt allusion to fragmentation and the construction of selfhood.

Mirrors continue to make appearances throughout the exhibition. The next gallery features the piece Run, in which the word “RUN” is spraypainted across a mirror. In a video presented on the MCA’s website, Johnson speaks about his interest in a history of black escapism, citing examples of Marcus Garvey, who says “let’s go back to Africa” and Sun Ra who “says let’s go to Saturn.”[2] Run, which itself denotes escape, highlights Johnson’s investment in this practice. Its placement within the gallery further emphasizes Johnson’s position in relation to a canon of black historical figures. When the viewer peers into the mirror, not only is their reflection obscured by RUN, but also by the reflected salon-style display of photographs on the opposing wall. These photographs, which recall James Van Der Zee’s portraits from the Harlem Renaissance, depict various black intellectuals and cultural figures. The photographs come from a body of work entitled The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club, a humorous title that references the Harlem Renaissance ambition to break black stereotypes.[3] Johnson’s beautifully crafted portraits not only point to this rich history, but also instill each individual with a drama that emphasizes their uniqueness and gives them idiosyncratic agency, much like the agency that Johnson grants to the runner in Sweet Sweet Runner from the previous gallery.

The most interesting part of the exhibition, to me, was the evocation of domestic space within the galleries. Most notably, Johnson creates shelves with mirror pieces, black wax, and wood. Johnson explains that he was influenced by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s book Something To Put Something On, wherein the words used for simple objects are questioned; a table is described as “something to put something on.”[4] Armed with this idea, Johnson too began to create "something to put something on." The objects that would occupy the spaces on the shelves came from Johnson’s personal world—the things that were around him in his day-to-day life—from books and records to soap and shea butter. In describing his [influential] upbringing, Johnson reveals that his parents, once daishiki-clad and afro-sporting, suddenly became middle-class soccer moms.[5] This transition away from afrocentrism was apparent to Johnson through the use (and discontinued use) of objects. It is thus evident why Johnson chooses to engage with mundane objects. He examines the way in which objects become embedded with meaning and how they function in one’s life. By placing them strategically on his constructed shelves (which recall altars and ritual), Johnson removes them from a functional context and into one of contemplation and engagement. The undoing of the objects’ use value is further augmented by repetition of the objects. Many shelves are host to multiple copies of one book, stacked in neat columns. By creating such a non-functional, yet undeniably domestic environment, Johnson conceives a space where one does not really know oneself. The viewer must engage, read, cogitate, and ritualize in order to come to terms with the space and his/her position within it. This unhinged sense of belonging is well-visualized in Johnson’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, a sculpture of the Public Enemy crosshairs. The positioning of the sculpture allows viewers to walk entirely around it, so that one does not know which side of the scope he or she is standing on. The entire exhibition is about orienting oneself, or the impossibility of doing so.

Like Wiener, Johnson explores the limitations of language and meaning. For Johnson, however, the words that are questioned center around blackness and identity. Just as Wiener demonstrates the many linguistic ways to define a table, Johnson reveals the multifaceted nature of blackness, and the impracticality of a monolithic definition of black identity. More comprehensively, his pieces, which communicate balance and orientation (shelves, domestic contraptions, furniture, mirrors, floorboards), work together to form a meditative space for viewers to contemplate their own standing, selfhood, and agency.

[1] Didactic wall text
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

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