Upon entering the exhibition Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, it is initially unclear what exactly we are seeing. Mirrored shelving units, with votives of shea butter lovingly arranged next to copies of Neil deGrasse Tyson books, Al Green records and old CB radios. Along with these domestic pieces, recurring themes arise – persian rugs, crosshair symbols, graffitied mirrors, and Johnson’s own face, doubled, obscured, and reimagined through the lens of history. Cultural, historical and personal references abound. In one room alone there are homages to African-American artist David Hammons, afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra, comedian Bill Cosby and the rap group Public Enemy. In another, we see the fusion of yoga with
tai chi, hip-hop and and modern dance.
On this level, then, the exhibition becomes a game of guess the references, find the subtext. Much of Johnson’s work threatens to remain at this level, an obscure parlor game, removed from the immediacy of contemporary life. After all, he paints a portrait of his own black masculinity, forged in an era (the 1970s) increasingly distinct from our own. If this were all Johnson’s work has to offer, then we could leave it at that, and the work might not live on beyond that moment of encounter. Instead, I’d like to offer up another reading of the exhibition, and, indeed, of Johnson’s oeuvre to this day. Beyond the game of find the reference, what emerges from the exhibition is a singular portrait of the artist, the story of how these references shaped and defined his world. On a more universal level, Johnson’s work speaks to the cultural influences that create any artist.
The shelves, for one, are not to be ignored. In works such as The Shuttle (2011) and Triple Consciousness (2009), Johnson arranges objects, implying both reverence and an unofficial hierarchy. These are not the rhythmically and formally ordered shelves of Haim Steinbach or the hermetically sealed cases of Jeff Koons. Johnson’s shelves contained hold a combination of commercially produced items and handmade objects. Something as exotic as a rock from space, or as mundane as 100 copies of a single book, along the ubiquitous shea butter dishes find their way into the composition of Death by Black Hole “The Crisis” (2010). Aside from the domestic connotation of the shelves, these pieces evoke altarpieces. The accretions of wax, black soap, gold spray paint, and the repetition of those shea butter votives combine the personal with the mass-produced. Even those mass produced objects show the signs of use. These are not the pristine commodities displayed by Koons and Steinbach.
While the shelves display a taxonomy of forms, influences and other cultural detritus, Johnson’s work then catalogues those elements as stereotypes. In each case, Johnson’s use of the stereotype veers from the extremely specific to more broad and undefined. For example, in the Death By Black Hole piece, Johnson juxtaposes two copies of comedian Bill Cosby’s 1986 book Fatherhood with one hundred copies of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007). Cosby dealt with stereotypes in his book, and in later years came under attack for criticizing African-American childrearing practices and family life. Comedy, of course, traffics in stereotypes, mining our perceived differences to
humorous effect. Likewise, deGrasse Tyson is widely read for both his insight into complex astronomical phenomena and his entertainment value. Stereotyping here works on many levels: African-American humor contrasts with that of the self-serious black intellectual – illustrated by Johnson’s double photograph Self Portrait as the Professor of Astronomy, Miscegenation and Critical Theory at The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Center for Graduate Studies (2009).
This tendency towards stereotyping, much like we see in the photograph’s title, stems from Johnson’s interrogation of the specific and the particular, and the resulting tension which pervades the entire exhibition. While the act of stereotyping itself necessarily collapses generalizations and details, it is clear that this interplay affects how we approach and read Johnson’s work. Are we looking at the construction of late twentieth-century black masculinity, or are we seeing into the mind of the artist himself? Are the accumulated layers of meaning for us to interpret, or are we to understand them as manifestations of Johnson’s artistic sensibility? Again, by understanding Johnson’s work as a construction of artistic influence, we are allowed a way “in” to the exhibition, as well as a path beyond the collection of associations and cultural signifiers. Johnson’s pieces compel the viewer to understand not the moment of artistic creation, nor the process by which a given artwork comes to be, but rather, how the outside world enters into that process and shapes the end result.
By Ila Sheren (Monday, November 18, 2013)