JOHNSON: James Baldwin, Henry Miller, James Joyce, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker. There is an interesting essay by Hurston where she writes that people imagine her to be a tragic character, but she does not feel that way. She says, "I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." I imagine her sitting out near a bay, shucking oysters and drinking beer.
STACKHOUSE: Sounds fabulous to me.
JOHNSON: Sounds like a great day, right? I think it's one of the more fantastic metaphors for a beautiful experience—this idea that she is just out sharpening her oyster knife. That is something that has really followed me, both in the titles I have used and the materials. I often use oyster shells with shea butter in them. It's really a very direct reference to that essay, which my mother introduced me to as a teenager. But Baldwin and Wright were enormously formative for me. And I would also say Ellison.
STACKHOUSE With just one book, Invisible Man, Ellison laid out a road map for the African-American. The "accommodating negro" versus, say, "the revolutionary." It's playing out in American history right now in an odd way.
JOHNSON: Yes, and there is a lot of overlapping. For me, every autobiography of a black male written after Wright's Black Boy is basically Black Boy, or an attempt. My mother introduced me to more academic-minded writers, Cornel West and Skip Gates. In her library I came across, when I was very young, Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, which is like a bible of Negro intellectuals from Frederick Douglass to Amiri Baraka. Even before I could understand anything inside of them, just seeing the books' spines and thinking about them was important for me as a child.
STACKHOUSE: There is an emotional charge in the presence of a library. Do you think there is-I don't like the word nostalgia, necessarily—a certain amount of comfort in just looking at books or vinyl records?
JOHNSON: I have found that to be the case for myself. I think that when you look at those things there is a sense of potential reward. The opportunity of just being in a space with them, I think, is an attractive thing. It is less about nostalgia or memory, more about opportunity.
STACKHOUSE: The things you use to make your work have cultural, as well as personal, associations built into them. Yet it seems you are most interested in their materiality, their objectness. Can you talk about this difference?
JOHNSON: The materials I've used over the last five to 10 years were things that were close to me, that reminded me of certain aspects of my experience growing up—for example, the relationship I had to Afrocentrism through my parents in the late '70s and early '80s. My mother would always have shea butter around, and she wore dashikis. I was celebrating Kwanzaa, hearing this unfamiliar language, Swahili, and seeing black soap and chew sticks around the house, things that were about applying an Africanness to one's self. Then my parents evolved into middle-class black professionals, and I was kind of abandoned in this Afrocentric space they had created. I was forced to negotiate what that period and those objects meant for me. I saw these things, as I got older, in Harlem, in Brooklyn, being sold on the street. I always thought to myself: What is the goal now with these materials? What are people trying to get from them?
So I started playing with those ideas and objects on a formal level, fueled by my interest in abstraction and mark-making as well as my interest in the constructed object, in the recent shelving units, for example. How do these things become signifiers? What are these things when they no longer function in the way they were originally intended to function?
STACKHOUSE: There was this kind of fissure in the late '70s. On the one hand, people were trying to make clear that they were full participants in American society, the capitalist system. On the other hand, they were trying to fully embrace being culturally African.
JOHNSON: It makes me think of the idea of black neurosis. It is underrecognized and has led to generations of black middle-class people fighting to understand their position and having a difficult time locating themselves.
STACKHOUSE: There is a particular insecurity in the black middle class—an instability in what defines it.
JOHNSON: Inherently, there is an enormous insecurity in it.
STACKHOUSE: This inherent tension is in your work. You address the "stuff" of the black middle class, the domesticity. You also address Afrocentricity, and the stuff of the black poor.
JOHNSON: For me, it's always been about these kinds of contradictions. I grew up in a situation where experiences had as much to do with class or gender as with race. I project this story of the black middle class into my work, but also I want material representations of blackness in other ways. And I hope that the contradictions are never fully resolved.
STACKHOUSE: You're not interested in the narrative of victimhood.
JOHNSON: I'm not. There is an interesting line by Aaron McGruder, who wrote the comic strip called "The Boondocks," which later became an animated television show. A character at one point says something like, "We weren't all chased by dogs and sprayed by hoses." You know there is a generation that is really upset by that kind of joke, because they feel that they opened the door for us. And it is not clear how to pay homage to them without sacrificing the freedoms and opportunities that their efforts gave us.
STACKHOUSE: How are we supposed to culturally address the past, and still move forward?
JOHNSON: The black academic in the Northeast in 1950 or 1960 had a completely different set of concerns than, say, a person living in Mobile, Alabama, at that time. And I am interested in setting up contradictions that point to the fact that there are many experiences.
STACKHOUSE: How does working in New York now differ from working in Chicago years ago?
JOHNSON: Chicago is a very complex place. It is incredibly segregated, I mean hyper-segregated.
STACKHOUSE: Yes, it is. Whenever I am there I am always a little surprised by that.
JOHNSON: Before I moved to New York a lot of my work spoke deliberately to segregation and other polarizing issues. I made a piece called I Wish I Was White . The words were on a piece of paper that folded out.
STACKHOUSE: Was the paper white?
JOHNSON: No, the paper was pinkish. Actually it was kind of pinkish yellow.
STACKHOUSE: And was the work a monochrome?
JOHNSON: It was a monochrome, yes [laughs].
STACKHOUSE: I think that is funny.
JOHNSON: [laughs] A lot of my work in Chicago had humor in it. When I moved to New York, honestly, my concerns were just different. But it was really important to my development as an artist to go through those steps and to come out in a very different place from where I began.
STACKHOUSE: What is indicative of a "post-Chicago" work?
JOHNSON: Now I deal with the more formal concerns of abstraction, even in works like the branded wood pieces, which also relate to critical and conceptual notions. Form is where I really started as an artist, before my work became involved with other concerns. I've gone back to issues around how you make decisions as an artist, as well as the materials and tools that you use to make those decisions.