In His New Show, Rashid Johnson Explores Black Escapism
Walk inside the spacious first room of Rashid Johnson’s new solo exhibition “Fly Away,” at Hauser & Wirth’s 18th Street gallery, and you’ll be faced with six large paintings depicting hundreds of figures, drawn aggressively with black soap and wax. These panels, lined with white ceramic tiles, are part of a series called “Anxious Audiences.” And conspicuously, on four of the panels—originally individually conceived as “Anxious Men” for a 2015 commission for The Drawing Center—many of the figures are missing. “The spaces that are blank are not completely blank—they are not without marking,” Johnson tells me as we stand beside the paintings at the gallery. The abstract markings that fill the faceless spaces appear as if they were violently snatched away. Motioning toward the emptiness, Johnson says, the work “is an opportunity to think about the missing.”
“Fly Away” takes its name from Albert E. Brumley’s spiritual song “I’ll Fly Away,” which has been performed over the years by bluegrass duo Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash, and pop rapper Kanye West, among many others. “It’s a beautiful song,” Johnson says, running his hands through his hair of neatly cropped locks. The original 1929 hymn evokes death as a way to reach a Promised Land; the second-to-last stanza goes, “Just a few more weary days and then/ I’ll fly away/ To a land where joy shall never end/ I’ll fly away.” Typically played at funerals, the song sets the tone for Johnson’s exhibition, which explores themes of racial anxiety, as well as both social and physical death as an opportunity for escape.
“The idea of flying away speaks to where we’ll go,” Johnson says. Since last summer, the 39-year-old artist has anxiously watched news coverage of the killing of unarmed and innocent black men, women, and children by police officers. He pauses, and adds, “although the song deals with death, I find it to be very opportunistic.”
In the exhibition, Johnson envisions mortality in similar ways as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book The Gift of Death (1992); he presents death, according to the artist, as “being as much about where we are going as it is about how we got there.” “Falling Men,” Johnson’s new series of multimedia paintings that hang in a smaller adjacent gallery, picture abstract figures constructed from mirrored tiles; these works, too, allude to death as an opportunity. The green landscape scenes shown in a group of “Escape Collages” provide a glimpse into where the artist, who was born in Chicago, would, himself, fly away to. For Johnson, the works represent “a necessary fiction some feel the need to occupy to produce a distance from the nationalism of this country,” explains Johnson. “There are so many black Americans who don’t feel accepted or wanted in this space.” In his own way, like the protesters proclaimed from Ferguson to New York, the artist is saying, “Black Lives Matter.”
In many ways, the new works represent Johnson’s oeuvre over the last decade and a half. Since his 1999 series “Seeing in the Dark”—formal portraits of homeless black men—was included in the 2001 exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Johnson has worked to use blackness to expand the dialogue around race, representation, and belonging. In the exhibitions that followed like the traveling solo show, “Message to Our Folks” (2012), and his installation in “ILLUMInations” at the 54th Venice Biennale, he expanded his photography practice into readymade sculpture, video, and drawing. Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden included Johnson’s work among that of the 28 artists in “Freestyle” because she considered it to be “post-black,” in the ways it aims to use blackness as a vehicle to reconsider complex and universal notions of identity.
The materiality of the art presented in “Fly Away” also further illuminates Johnson’s concerns. He employs dollops of African black soap or chunks of yellowish African shea tree fat in each of the works presented in the show. “They have become my art materials,” the artist says. “I know this material as well as someone knows oil paint or steel.” Johnson’s use of these materials, commonly used to clean black skin, recall the symbolic power of conceptual artist Wolfgang Laib’s Pollen from Hazelnut (1992) and Joseph Beuys’s measures of fat in his Fat Chair (1964-1985). African black soap and shea butter are medicinal; they evoke the power of healing. And they’re also mythic, in the ways they act as imagined gateway to West Africa for African Americans.
As he stands at the head of Untitled (shea butter table) (2016), Johnson says the shea butter and black soap provide “an opportunity to not only try and identify with the material of an African space, but to apply that material to your body.” The artist, who now sits on the board of the Guggenheim Museum, adds, “It started with me thinking about them as signifying materials.” For Johnson, the use of black soap and shea butter (or cocoa butter, as it is also known) by African Americans points to an attempt to create agency away from racism, by forming complex relationships with Africa. Eventually, he says, “Starting with my first trip as an adult to West Africa, I sort of came to the realization that I am not African.”
The new show culminates with Antoine’s Organ (2016), a 30-foot-tall gridded installation overflowing with various types of lush green plants. It might be understood as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art), with books. Stacked volumes of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Deborah Dickerson’s The End of Blackness, and Richard Wright’s Native Son fill square shelves alongside small televisions looping the artist’s older video works, shea butter sculptures, handcrafted pottery from which succulents and palms bloom, and, at the core of it all, an upright piano.
“I met a young pianist through a friend named Antoine Baldwin,” Johnson tells me. “After hearing him, I thought to myself, ‘I would like this work to have something that it delivers.’” Baldwin, who is known as Audio BLK and played at the artist’s studio as he was making the new works, will play the piano periodically during the run of the exhibition. Looking up at the grid-like minimalist “music box,” Johnson tells me, “I have to maintain the plants, and we know sound vibrations help them grow.” In a show that deals primarily in the exigency of death, the social sculpture is totally alive.
“Fly Away” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, New York, Sep. 8–Oct. 22, 2016.