Rashid Johnson, like the art he creates, is confident, smart and intriguing. This becomes immediately clear as he talks about the works on view at the Miami Art Museum in Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, the first retrospective of this rising art-world star.
One of the exhibit’s finest pieces is an oak floor, covering the entrance gallery space, that’s branded repetitively with symbols including a gun scope’s crosshairs, the insignia of an elite black fraternity and a palm tree.
The tree is not, as one might think, a nod to Miami, he says, but “a reference to growing up in Chicago, where palm trees were exotic, and suggested that you had travelled.” The ultimate sign of somewhere else — and of arriving someplace else.
It’s a good introduction to Johnson’s art, which, through a dizzying array of materials including soap, wax and shea butter, is conceptual, clever, Afro-centric and both abstract and historical.
Large, abstract paintings and sculptures comprise much of his recent work, but Johnson, 35, came to prominence while still a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for photographic portraits, mostly black and white.
Their titles alone paint a picture: Self Portrait With My Hair Parted Like Frederick Douglass; The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual; Self Portrait as the Professor of Astronomy, Miscegenation and Critical Theory at the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Center for Graduate Studies.
Standing before that last piece, Johnson laughs at the ridiculously long title. “I don’t even remember it myself,” he says. But you will remember the image, a posed double self-portrait, his look severe and studious in an obvious way, complete with oversized eyeglass frames, suit and tie.
Johnson was already showing nationally by 2001, and one of his sepia-looking portraits was the literal face, on posters and catalogue cover, of the Rubell Collection’s vaunted 2008-09 exhibit 30 Americans, a survey of African-American artists that has since toured the world.
These faux-historical portraits and his use of appropriated images (Al Green album covers, for example) have one thing in common, Johnson says: “None lack self-confidence, as you can see. These are confident black characters.”
Like Johnson himself, who strode smoothly, making quips and giving well-thought-out answers, during a pre-opening walk-through of the MAM exhibit, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in April. It doesn’t hurt his art-star status that he is tall and handsome.
Johnson talks about the bravado of his “characters” as it relates to hip-hop, the music that most influenced him growing up in Chicago and nearby Evanston, the home of Northwestern University, where his mother teaches African-American history.
“Talk about having a microphone,” he says of his early rap heroes such as Rakim and Public Enemy. “Art, too, can amplify your voice. If you don’t have anything to say, why bother at all?” Art should ask questions and provoke, he says, or it is meaningless.
Nearly every work in the show draws on Johnson’s deep knowledge of African-American history — even the abstract paintings use materials or symbols associated with black life.