Artwork: Rashid Johnson, Untitled Escape Collage (2016). © The artist. All images © The artist. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
The sounds of a piano drift eloquently through the room, enveloping you in a soaring, intense crescendo of freedom hard won, the freedom to pursue not happiness, but joy. To African American artist Rashid Johnson, the distinction is necessary. “Joy is something so many of us understand. It is John Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme,’” Johnson observes before adding with casual insouciance, “The steaks at the strip house are really good.”
Johnson is leading a tour through Fly Away, a new exhibition of his work at Hauser & Wirth, New York, currently on view through October 22, 2016. Five years in the making, the monumental exhibition fills four rooms, each evoking its own breathtaking way of relating to our world.
The first room is vast, so expansive that it holds his large-scale series, Anxious Audiences, comfortably. The works, a formidable grid of black soap and wax faces evoking the most visceral feelings of stress, nag on a bed of white ceramic tile. They are similar, but distinct, though it’s hard to gauge how much, for the intensity of emotion they provoke is repellant enough to make you step back, lest you recognize yourself.
Johnson explains that anxiety has played a large role in his work, dealing not only with the stresses of fatherhood and life transitions but alluding to the current climate of violence against African Americans at the hands of the state. He invites people to draw their own conclusions, rather than tell them what to think, speaking more about his processes as an artist than the horrors that we continuously face. This is liberating, if not a relief, for in this age of constant propaganda, it’s refreshing to encounter an artist who trusts the minds of his audience, no matter what conclusions they may draw.
Johnson guides us to the second room filled with Escape Collages. Again, employing the ceramic tiles so many of us recognize from daily life, now recontextualized with images of palm trees. The Chicago native laughs that palm trees are his idea of escape, a theme in his work that counterbalances the on-going experience of anxiety. The Escape Collages are among some of the most alluring works in the show, beckoning us to a world so many of us wish to go. Yet they are not without the stains of life, the black soap and wax materials finding their way here as well.
Johnson points to a photograph of a man in the upper right hand corner of one of the works. That was his father, back in 1977, posing for a portrait after receiving his green belt in karate. This is the only recognizable portrait throughout the show, one layered with a deep love for the truth about the human condition: we’re proud of our small accomplishments for they speak to the soul’s desire for living our truest purpose.
Then we come to the pièce de résistance: Antoine’s Organ, a 30-foot-tall architectural grid that soars under the gallery’s cavernous roof. An empty lattice of bare black scaffolding is filled with signifying objects including books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and live plants in ceramic vessels hand-built and decorated by Johnson. And at the center of it all musician Antoine Baldwin sits at an upright piano playing sounds that soar through the air, guiding us through this experience with the greatest of care.
Johnson speaks to his inspiration for the work, going back to his childhood years when he and his friends would breakdance on Carl Andre sculpture at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. It was the only thing that the public was allowed to touch, and in doing so it, it empowered Johnson and his friends to create their own experience with the art.
The final room is remarkable for it centers itself around a vast table covered in yellow African shear tree fat. Like the black soap and wax of the previous works, the shea tree fat has become the very material in which Johnson works. By paying homage to his medium in this way, Johnson’s work speaks t not only the creation of art, but to the very human necessity that underlies it. Both black soap and shea butter have medicinal properties, and, as Johnson observes, “If everything went to hell, you could clean yourself with my paintings.”
Johnson’s sense of humor is the finishing touch to an exhibition that is deeply layered in meaning, experience, and emotion. “My mother taught me very early my body was political,” he says to a room that is more than 90% Caucasian. He leaves it at that, so deep is his faith that art will allow us to take what we need.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.