Rashid Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition explores the artist’s use of his materials to investigate the construction of identity and abstraction, both visual and conceptual.
The Shuttle, 2011
Mirrored tile, black soap, wax, books, shea butter, plant, and CB radio
Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Photo: Adam Reich, courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA“It has [seventeen] copies of a book by comedian Dick Gregory called, Write Me In, where he tries to convince the American public to write him in as a candidate for president to run against Nixon…It also includes a CB radio, which is what my dad did for a living…He went on to run a CB radio business, so I use that radio quite often in my work. This shape, which is space shuttle-like, is actually the blueprint of the first comedy [club] that comedian Dick Gregory ever performed in.”— Rashid Johnson
The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett), 2008
Collection of Elliot and Kimberly Perry, Memphis
Image courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA“Boulé, a fraternity and secret society, started in the early 20th century by the doctor and scholar Henry McKee Minton. Most people believe that it was formed by Minton (and later W.E.B. Du Bois) as a reaction by the black elite to Marcus Garvey. Groups like Sigma Pi Phi and the Boulé were formed by black elites in response, as an attempt to form a stronger position in America rather than escaping to Africa. Being a secret society, there are no records of all existing members. The lack of specificity grants me the agency to imagine and create its membership. Although I have been informed by rumors of the potential members, I’ve allowed myself to think broadly about who and how some historical figures would have affected or been affected by the group’s existence.”— Rashid Johnson
Self Portrait with My Hair Parted Like Frederick Douglass, 2003
Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of the Susan and Lewis Manilow Collection of Chicago Artists, 2006.26
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago“I always think about the characters first, when I do personally portray them, that I idealize…They are all men who I essentially would like to channel. I think about the absurdity of maybe taking a pose similar to theirs and that if I were to do that then in some way I could acquire, through that channeling, what it was that I admired about them. I used a classic image of Frederick Douglass when I parted my hair like him. When I first came across the famous portrait of Douglass, I was totally enamored with the depiction of a black character in this very classic portrait…Essentially what I’m suggesting is by mimicking him, I’m channeling him, I’m not trying to be him or call myself him. I’m just mimicking something that he had done.”— Rashid Johnson
The Moment of Creation, 2011
Mirrored tile, black soap, wax, vinyl in album cover, books, shea butter, oyster shells, plant, space rocks, inkjet print on glass, and CB radio
Paul and Linda Gotskind Collection, Chicago
Image courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA“I’m adopting materials, giving them a home, and employing them in my lexicon. My use of materials relies heavily on my personal relationship to them. Every material I use has a utilitarian purpose. Shea butter speaks to body coating and the failure to acquire an African-ness through its application. Black soap cleans sensitive skin. The vinyl records feed the soul. The books disseminate information. The goal is for all of the material to ‘miscegenate’ into a new language with me as its author.”— Rashid Johnson
Van Dyke Brown print
Collection of Abigail and Matthew Bangser, Los Angeles
Photo: Joshua White“When I started at Columbia [College in Chicago], everybody was making photographs of their friends. I wanted to find something else to photograph. I started meeting a lot of homeless men in the neighborhood close to where I was studying and I started making photographs of them…I want people to see men, not homeless men.”— Rashid Johnson
Spray enamel on mirror
Collection of Nancy Delman Portnoy, New York
Photo: Martin Parsekian, courtesy of the artist“I think ‘run’ is…the most powerful word in the English language. Because you say it and there’s just some sort of urgency that just comes with it.”— Rashid Johnson
Message to Our Folks is New York-based artist Rashid Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition. Titled after a 1969 album by avant-garde jazz collective Art Ensemble of Chicago, the exhibition examines how Johnson’s work has developed over the first fourteen years of his career. Johnson (American, b. 1977) deftly works with several different media exploring the physicality of his materials to investigate the construction of identity and abstraction, both visual and conceptual. Many of Johnson’s materials refer to his childhood in Chicago during the 1970s and 80s, suggesting both personal and broader cultural connections.
While Johnson’s works are grounded in a dialogue with modern and contemporary art history, specifically abstraction and appropriation, they also give voice to an Afro-futurist narrative – an approach that combines history, science fiction, magical realism, and non-Western theories of the origins of the universe. Throughout the artwork on view, Johnson explores the work of black intellectual and cultural figures as a way to understand his role as an artist as well as the shifting nature of identity and the individual’s role in that shift. By bringing attention to difference and individuality, he attempts to deconstruct false notions of a singular black American identity.
About the artist
Rashid Johnson earned his B.F.A. from Columbia College Chicago in 2000 and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003. The program’s heavy emphasis on concept and theory posed a challenge to Johnson who wanted to make things. Yet it stoked his interest in the formal elements of artworks and in finding meaningful materials outside those typically associated with traditional art. Johnson left for New York in 2005, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. Johnson was the recipient of the 2012 David C. Driskell Prize.
Much of Johnson’s work explores the complexities and contradictions of black identity, in particular, challenging stereotypical ways of thinking about the black experience and emphasizing its plurality. Johnson’s “black experience” was a middle class one, not often portrayed in the arts or mass-media. Because his work often draws on personal experiences, he doesn’t attempt to speak for his entire race. Johnson characterizes his work as more biographical than political and notes, “I grew up in a situation where experiences had as much to do with class or gender as with race. I project this story of the black middle class into my work, but also I want material representations of blackness in other ways. And I hope that the contradictions are never fully resolved.”