Labeling Abstraction; Grasping at Straws

With barely more than three weeks left to view the first major solo exhibition of Rashid Johnson, Message to our Folks (closing January 6!), I’m interested in reflecting on the development and growth of abstraction. An article in ARTNews positions our time as a new Renaissance, a Golden Age, and isolates new abstraction into six seemingly distinct groups, divided by either culture or nature. Johnson fits well into some, such as the group “Sign Abstraction” with his use of branded palm trees and cross-hairs in Houses in Motion (2012).

Rashid Johnson, Houses in Motion, 2012.

Rashid Johnson, Houses in Motion, 2012.

Still, abstraction aims to break down structured systems for viewing art, so we must question labels. Houses in Motion continues to defy conceptions of traditional oil on canvas, or marble sculpture, by using oak flooring as a base for branding, wax, spray enamel, and soap. The cultural symbols emphasize the everyday elements like soap and wax. But these in turn recreate a landscape: branded cross-hairs dot the flooring like flowers and the wax drips down like a waterfall. Even the floor boards evoke trees like the palm tree branded on top. At the same time, a floor reminds us of architecture, another of the new “six” categories of contemporary abstraction. Almost like the Surrealists or Dadaists, Johnson breaks from the use of traditional media and controlled labels to reference the hairier parts of our country’s past, especially through branding and gun scopes.

This visual expression links abstraction with the personal. Rashid Johnson’s work is rife with cultural references, many personal to him as a black man growing up in America. However, through abstraction, he also asks us to put ourselves in his shoes and to reflect on our own identities: Promised Land (2008) and Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (2008) are two prime examples.

Rashid Johnson, Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, 2008.

Rashid Johnson, Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, 2008.

Rashid Johnson, Promised Land, 2008.

Rashid Johnson, Promised Land, 2008.

Both require interactive and highly personal reactions through their simplicity. With fewer visual elements to latch onto compared to even Houses in Motion, we must react to how our physical selves interact with the piece. Especially in Promised Land, we see ourselves in the mirror, looking into “the Promised Land” that seems unattainable or nonexistent. The monumental cross-hairs of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos overwhelm the view, and possibly the viewer, forcing us to feel as if we’re constantly under attack or being watched, a personal invasion of privacy.

Our modern world overloads us with imagery; reading this, you’ve already seen three artworks. However, this modern mass of images forces artists to express themselves in innovative and abstract ways, truly bringing a resurgence of abstract art. In this world bombarded with ads, televisions, and computers, Rashid Johnson uses abstraction to create a personal link with his viewers. Observe the rest of his work for yourself: come see the exhibition one last time before it closes on January 6th!

By Jacob Emmett (Tuesday, December 10, 2013)

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