Rashawn Griffin’s exhibition at the Nerman Museum marks a homecoming of sorts. The artist (b. 1980) grew up in nearby Olathe, Kan., and returned from New York City to live there in 2008. (His work was in that year’s Whitney Biennial.) Right after receiving his MFA at Yale, Griffin was included in Thelma Golden’s 2005–06 “Frequency” show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, featuring artists she described as “post-black.”
In Griffin’s latest exhibition, “a hole- in-the-wall country,” he continued to explore issues of identity and race in subtle and personal ways. The show’s title refers to an outlaw hideout in northern Wyoming that figures in the 1907 autobiography of African-American cowboy Nat Love. Love’s adventures fired Griffin’s imagination and influenced his own fact-mixed-with-fiction approach to personal narrative. The theme of finding himself a place ran throughout this exhibition in works that repeatedly allude to shelter and home. Griffin is known for his use of found and domestic materials, which were evident here in large and small paintings, collages, a relief, a freestanding roomlike construction and two suspended pennants.
The largest of the pennants, which hung down from the second floor into the museum’s lobby, was emblazoned with the name of a fictional town, “Griffin, KS.,” in big white letters on a black ground. A thin metal cable, from which the pennant was suspended, led viewers to a second- floor gallery, where Griffin painted a long wall brilliant red orange. Next to the wall he erected dumpling, a roughly 7-by-9- by-7-foot shelter structure topped by an open wood grid and covered with panels of subdued black-and-tan-striped fabric and denim. Griffin lined the interior with a jazzy black-and-white patterned fabric that produced a restless optical buzz. A soundtrack of intermittent bursts of laughing, scraping, yelling and talking contrib- uted to the disquieting effect.
Four large untitled paintings also incorporated fabric, juxtaposed with enlarged black-and-white drawings derived from a book of children’s stories that Griffin borrowed from a friend. Executed in ink and water-soluble oil paint, the images take on a dreamy, miragelike quality in Griffin’s incomplete translations of them. In one canvas, several scraps of the black-and-white fabric from dumpling appear with a drawing of the upper part of a house. Next to it, along the painting’s left-hand edge, a white garden trellis supports hints of flowers and plants. An amorphous stain of light blue wash at the top of the composition evokes sky.
In the large wall-hanging untitled (let it go), more than a dozen silky tassels (Griffin collects them) dangled from two horizontal dowels, mounted one above the other roughly three feet apart. The piece included a tiny altarlike bench on the floor, holding various plastic and ceramic objects, inspired, the artist told me, by his mother’s love of tchotchkes. The exhibition was laced with allusions to family, friendships, memories, yearnings and playful imaginings, like that fictional Kansas town named just for him.
Photo: View of Rashawn Griffin’s dumpling, 2012, mixed mediums, 87 1/2 by 107 1/2 by 84 inches; at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.