In the years since his formal photography training at Chicago's Columbia College, Rashid Johnson's practice has increasingly subverted the dominant powers in diverse media by approaching them with the sub-cultural histories of black Americana. Currently on view in New York, there's his film The Sweet Sweet Runner (2010) (as part of his solo show, Our Kind of People) at Salon 94, inspired by the ur-blaxploitation work of Melvin Van Peebles. To Nicole Klagsbrun's group exhibition (LEAN), Johnson contributes Pink Lotion Box (2003)—a sculptural work made of Luster's pink hair lotion and Plexiglas, and a comment on the multi-million dollar black hair care industry.
RASHID JOHNSON, SWEET SWEET RUNNER INSTALLATION, 2010, FROM THE EXHIBITION OUR KIND OF PEOPLE. COURTESY SALON94.
"I say that I suffer from what Rosalind Krauss was calling the post-medium condition, where an artist essentially employs several mediums in order to bring to life whatever specific ideas that they have. For me it's always been that way," Johnson said, in an interview last week at his cluttered Bushwick, Brooklyn studio. The point at which Johnson "hijacks Krauss's language," as he said in a follow-up phone conversation, is where he looks at his work outside the classic definition of medium—that is, based on the limits of its materiality. For Johnson, another medium (a "consciousness") is created by his blending of sculpture, painting and photography. "The marriages [of those things] become the new mediums, not the separation of them."
Johnson frequently refers to the relationships between his different works: connections based on their proximity in a show, use of similar materials, or more basic principles.
"The way that light hits objects, I think, is one of the more important things that sculpture and photography share," Johnson said. "The way that light hits objects in life, three-dimensional objects before you photograph them, is really the story of photography." His shelving-unit sculptures made of black tile or covered in black soap and black wax depend on subtle illumination. Imagine a sculpture made of dark materials or a black-and-white photograph in a darkened room. "Light brings to life the gesture in the more articulate moments of [a] piece," Johnson said.
RASHID JOHNSON, PINK LOTION BOX, 2004-2010. COURTESY NICOLE KLAGSBRUN GALLERY.
Though film is a relatively new medium for Johnson, the ideas behind The Sweet Sweet Runner, are couched in the dominant themes of his work.
"I've always been interested in this idea of a privileged life, probably because it's something I hadn't seen much of," he says. The Sweet Sweet Runner was inspired by Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 chase flick Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Johnson's film follows the protagonist as he exits his tony Manhattan apartment and goes for a jog; it's a riff on Van Peebles' Sweetback character running from the police at the end of that film. With Johnson's runner, "[It's] this idea that he's just kind of jogging for his health, running for his own health and then at the same time kind of running for his life."
Meditations on survival and maintenance cut through Johnson's work. Our Kind of People takes its title from Lawrence Otis Graham's 1998 book about an American black upper class. Another of Johnson's bodies of work over the last few years includes large-format photographs shot in black-and-white. His sitters mimic the poses of James Van Der Zee's Harlem Renaissance portraits. "I was playing with that idea and I was kind of thinking more and more about this idea of the black secret society," Johnson saud.
Johnson's untitled project concerns the Boulé, a secret society of black professionals, and its associated fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi. The Boulé was founded in the early 20th Century by Henry McKee Minton, as a reaction, some say, to Marcus Garvey's black nationalist ideology and its "back to Africa" cry. Its known members included academics like W.E.B. Du Bois; rumored members range from Thurgood Marshall to Bill Cosby.
For his installation at Art Basel in June, Johnson's free-standing, shelf-like sculptures will be arranged in close proximity to each other, not unlike a shrine. The small tile-based sculpture is in the front, and behind it (and just off to the side) is a larger steel sculpture, and behind that a black-soap and black-wax work. The photograph, situated on a wall adjacent to the set of sculptures, depicts a model in the same pose as a well-known portrait of Boulé founder Minton.
While he said he consulted his great-uncle, who is a member, Johnson said the ability to navigate between "the real and then the produced" was what most appealed to him about creating the project. "It was an opportunity to play both with real ideas and to project my own fictional kind of characters into a story," he said. "It's an opportunity more than anything else to inject myself into history without anyone fully knowing how clear my actual intervention into that kind of historical language is."
"It's really an interesting dance," said Johnson, regarding figuring out Boulé membership. "I get to be the person who makes the final decision as to whether this person was a member or not of this secret society." Johnson here takes on the artist's responsibility to historical accuracy and cultural authority. And while the artist selects characters for the narrative of his project, ultimately the viewer is the one who determines the interpretation of the piece.
OUR KIND OF PEOPLE, WORK BY RASHID JOHNSON IS ON VIEW AT SALON94 THROUGH APRIL 30. (LEAN), IS ON VIEW AT NICOLE KLAGSBRUN THROUGH APRIL 24.