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.
In the “post-Obama” world of 2012, is this a little much? He has a funny and insightful answer.
He sees himself as part of “the third wave of Afro-Centrism,” a product of the hyper-race-conscious Chicago of the 1970s and parents who “wore dashikis” and were involved in creating a black mythology centered around black nationalism. As the Reagan era unfolded, they put away their robes and donned suits, leaving the young Johnson “in a void.” It was quickly filled, however, by the new, powerful forces of black musicians, athletes and pop icons who would shape his voice and art.
Some have labeled his work “conceptual post-black art,” which is a fairly useless term, but his art does express a current thread in American culture while remaining true to important roots.
One searing piece from 2001 is a Van Dyke Brown print, a 19th century photographic process Johnson often employs that makes pictures look aged. The image of the bottoms of feet, arranged in two rows, is called Untitled, Manumission Papers, for the documents by which slaves were freed. And it clearly references the system by which enslaved blacks were assessed, branded, documented and dehumanized, a well-known vein in African-American history.
As you walk across Johnson’s branded wooden floor, you come upon another stunning piece, Cosmic Slop, an all-black painting made in part from black soap of West African origins, that shares its title with a groundbreaking 1973 Funkadelic album. The title of the exhibit itself, Message to Our Folks, is appropriated from a 1960s jazz album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but is also an obvious reference to the classic 1903 Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, whose presence is felt throughout the show.
With so many layers to follow and decipher, this is one of the smartest shows MAM has had in a while, and one of the best of the year. But not everything works.
The altars with found objects seem too obvious, for example. Maybe we here on the Caribbean periphery are so used to these ritual shelves that they remain a little flat. Some include a mirror as canvas, dripping with black wax and punctured and splintered with imagery evoking bullet holes. The photography and painting are so complex, beautiful and powerful that these sculptures are overshadowed.
But then Johnson explains the found objects and fractured mirrors in his confident and convincing style: “I want materials that are understandable. I don’t want people to have to think they have to put on a beret to be an artist, to understand art. I don’t want this to be scary stuff, it should be materials we all recognize, so we can’t distance ourselves from it.”
And that process of recognition is why he loves mirrors. “I think it’s funny. You wake up in the morning and look in the mirror,” he says. That’s the last image of yourself, and later in the day you still think you look that way, but others have a different impression.
“There has to be a constant dialogue” he says.