Chicago RASHID JOHNSON'S ARTWORKS are meditations on the cultural phenomena that shape African-Americans as a social group. Viewers of his videos, photographs, sculptures, paintings and installations are looking at deft presentations of slippery conceptual surfaces. However, abstract form is equally significant to the artist and guides his process. Craftsmanship, autobiography, design, theater, ambience and historical scholarship are always evident.
Johnson began making art as a photographer in 1996. He received a BA in 2000 from Columbia College in Chicago and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2003 to '05. At SAIC, he was strongly influenced by critical theory through his studies with Gregg Bordowitz, a professor of film, video and new media. Upon leaving the Art Institute, Johnson moved to New York, where he has gained attention in solo and group shows with photographs, text pieces and altarlike shelving structures, on which he places objects that hark back to the 1970s and carry personal and social weight. Most recently, the objects have included books, record albums, oyster shells, shea butter and radio components.
Johnson had his first solo exhibition in New York only three years after his arrival, at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. Among the works was the 8-foot-square wall-hung shelf construction The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (The Power of Healing), 2008, the title alluding to a classic sociological study by Harold Cruse, who saw in black intellectual leadership of the first half of the 20th century a failure to understand the depths of American racism. In the same exhibition, the sculpture Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (2008), a rendering of a rifle's crosshairs at about 4 feet in diameter, introduced a motif that points to the political plight of black male youth in the 1980s and recurs in Johnson's work. The title is borrowed from a 1988 song by Public Enemy, whose logo features an image of crosshairs. The song addresses the dependency of the privatized prison industry on the incarceration of black males.
Johnson's recent exhibition in New York, his first at Hauser & Wirth, was called "Rumble," a reference to the historic 1974 Zaire boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that headlined as "The Rumble in the Jungle." The bout was organized by boxing promoter Don King, who once owned the Upper East Side townhouse where the gallery is located. The exhibition included large abstract paintings that employ unusual supports such as tiled mirrors or wood flooring. Johnson's mark-making is often executed in black soap (traditionally made in West Africa) or by burning a surface with a hot branding iron. The image of the crosshairs turned up subtly and not so subtly. It appeared branded repeatedly on a section of parquet red oak flooring (The Squared Circle, 2011), along with other brandings of palm trees and the insignia of Sigma Pi Phi, the first African-American Greek-letter fraternity. It can also be found drawn in the sand in the 16mm film The New Black Yoga (2011). In the approximately 11-minute film, five black men on an ocean beach perform choreographed moves combining martial arts and yoga, to a score of generic flute music accompanied by a simple, slow, rhythmic world beat. The work seems to offer an absurdist take on the dilemma facing the young black male: be aggressive and protect yourself, but be self-reflective and peaceful.
I visited Johnson on a sunny autumn morning at his studio in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The expansive, roughly constructed space looks very much like a wood and metal workshop. It was strewn with power tools and worktables. Avuncular, casually confident in manner, at age 34 Johnson is preternaturally clear about what inspires his creative output—American literature and the ways in which African-Americans are situated in that literature, as well as the influence that African-Americans have on American cultural production of all sorts. These subjects sharpen his focus on enduing physical objects with meaning and narrative. Offering a contemporary black American esthetic, Johnson questions the uniformity of "black experience," openly interrogating the usual monolithic view of the black struggle for affirmation and recognition.
Opening this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, is "Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks," the artist's first museum survey. Organized by MCA associate curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm, it encompasses 36 works-paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and videos-dating from 1998 to 2012, with a focus on pieces from the last five years. Johnson has shown extensively in the U.S. and abroad, including the 2011 Venice Biennale, and is represented by Hauser & Wirth Gallery, New York, and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
CHRISTOPHER STACKHOUSE: What was it like growing up in Chicago?
RASHID JOHNSON: I was born in Evanston, about three blocks away from the Chicago border. My mother at the time was finishing her PhD in African history at Northwestern University. Soon after my birth, my parents split and my father moved to Wicker Park, which is on the north side of the city.
STACKHOUSE: How did you divide your time between your parents? Half and half?
JOHNSON: More or less. I was with my mother a lot during the week, and I spent time with my father on the weekend. My father owned a small company, called Gundel Electronics, where he did community band radio and some repair stuff. But mostly his business revolved around ham radio, CB radio, so the house was kind of an electronics . . .
STACKHOUSE: . . . laboratory?
JOHNSON: Yeah, tons of lollipop microphones, buttons and dials. There was a lot of "calling out into the world" and people having "handles." My father had a big brick cell phone, before anyone had a cell phone, because he was really just into that kind of thing—communication devices. I grew up between my father's laboratory and my mother's library.
STACKHOUSE: So your formative years were sandwiched between the tinkering of your dad with his electronics business and your mother's dedication to education?
JOHNSON: Yes, I would say that. And I also give credit now to my stepfather, although we didn't have the best relationship when I was younger. He had a strong interest in literature, and introduced me to a lot of writers and thinkers who have been influential to me.
STACKHOUSE: Who are some of those people?