“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.”