Fusing identity

Fusing identity


Rashid Johnson’s photographs, sculptural installations and films have always drawn inspiration from larger-than-life figures who challenge conventional models of behaviour, writes Dorothy Spears.

Rashid Johnson was discussing his coming exhibition at the Hauser & Wirth gallery recently, when Marc Payot, a gallery partner, mentioned that a previous owner of the gallery’s sleek town house on East 69th Street in Manhattan was the boxing promoter Don King.

Johnson, a longtime boxing fan whose father had been a Golden Gloves fighter, said he froze. “I was like, ‘Don King used to live in this house?’”

As a child, Johnson said, he watched King on television as he used his catch phrase, “Only in America,” and waved American flags. “I’d never seen black people representing themselves as so patriotic,” Johnson said during an interview recently, adding that at the time he assumed King was sincere.

Now, Johnson said, he wonders. Was such patriotic pageantry a tool of self-interest? Or was there an element of truth in it? How do public figures like King confront their times, and what can be learned from them?

These questions became a platform for Johnson’s first solo show with Hauser & Wirth, “Rumble,” named after the Rumble in the Jungle, fought in the former Zaire in 1974 between the world heavyweight champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali — and which was promoted by King.

For more than a decade, Johnson’s photographs, sculptural installations and films have drawn inspiration from larger-than-life figures like King who challenge conventional models of behaviour.

Images of Frederick Douglass, the jazz composer Sun Ra, the writer and activist W E B Dubois and the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson are among those fused into larger works made up of burnt wood, mirror glass and a mixture of black soap and wax that Johnson calls “cosmic slop,” after the venerable song by Funkadelic.

Johnson’s bold markings and symbols recall the work of Franz Kline and Adolph Gottlieb. His deep engagement with materials and form suggest artists as diverse as Joseph Beuys and Carl Andre. But it’s his disarming fusion of contradictory elements — jarring references to cross hairs and branding offset by offerings of shea butter and gridlike compositions of hand-cut mirror tiles, brainy seriousness balanced by self-mocking humour — that has created excitement.

He is one of six finalists for the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize, which is given every two years and recognises significant achievement in contemporary art. (The winner, to be announced next fall, gets $1,00,000 cash and a solo show at the Guggenheim in New York.)

In April, “Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks,” a survey of some 40 photographs, prints, sculptures, installations, wall pieces and a film, is scheduled to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In September, a solo show of new works is scheduled for the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles. And in October, the South London Gallery, a contemporary-art museum and performance space, will present a solo exhibition of his work during the Frieze Art Fair.

“Rashid recognises that history is more than what happened yesterday,” Matthew Day Jackson, an artist and sometime collaborator who also shows at Hauser & Wirth, said by phone. “His particular use of mirrors, animal skin, black soap or CB radios speaks of his own history, art history, but also history in the broadest sense.”

Julie Rodrigues Widholm, an associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago who’s organising Johnson’s exhibition in April, said, “Rashid creates objects for conversation.” By making photographs that look like paintings, paintings that are somehow sculptural, sculptures that resemble furniture, she said, “he’s inviting viewers to ask: ‘What do I do when I encounter something unfamiliar? Do I move on quickly? Do I linger? Do I go home and do research? Do I look everything up online?’ “
For Johnson, born in 1977 and raised in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, the show is a homecoming. As his mother earned a doctorate in African history from Northwestern University, Johnson said, he would often wander into her library to look at books about African-American history and culture. His wall pieces that resemble shelving units, he said, “are in some ways mimicking that experience.”

After his parents divorced, Johnson spent weekends in the Chicago neighbourhood of Wicker Park, where his father ran a small electronics company, installing devices like CB radios in cars and homes. At a baby sitter’s house, Johnson said, a main source of entertainment was a police scanner; his baby sitter and her friends would all sit around it and then comment on what was going on in the neighbourhood.

Placing radios in shelving units, he said, is “a kind of marriage of materials from my mother’s and father’s houses after they were divorced”. These memories recur in his work, along with his enthusiasm for hip-hop, movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man by Melvin Van Peebles and, of course, boxing.

Johnson earned a BFA in photography in 2000 from Columbia College in Chicago, where he studied with the portraitist Dawoud Bey. At the Art Institute of Chicago, he said, “I took as many courses as I could” with the social activist and artist Gregg Bordowitz. An early break came in 2001, when Johnson was included in “Freestyle,” a high-profile roundup of contemporary black artists organised by Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

During a visit to Johnson’s current mini-factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the atmosphere was convivial. A hip-hop mixtape playing Busta Rhymes was drowned out by the recurring whir of a table saw. The floors and tables were cluttered with works in progress. The large-scale piece inspired by King hung on a wall.

Johnson, tall and fit in a mustard-coloured velour hoodie, called it “a fairly anxious work, with a lot of broken bits of mirror.” Clumps of cosmic slop looked like dripping black snowballs on its cracked surface. At its centre, the word “Rumble”.
Johnson recalled going with his father to watch the 1988 world heavyweight championship fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks on an enormous television screen at Chicago Stadium. The fight, promoted by King, lasted 91 seconds. “It was the most aggressive knockout dominance I’d ever seen,” Johnson said.

He clearly loves a good fight. Yet his ode to King will appear alongside a film called The New Black Yoga, a funny riff on learning yoga in a foreign country. In addition, blackened-steel shelves will hold a working CB radio. A charred piece of red-oak floor will be balanced by a sculpture that has a balm for healing burns.

Who knows? Viewers may end up feeling as Widholm did. She said: “Rashid’s work derives from his personal experiences, but it’s about shared connections. He doesn’t lose the specifics of his story, while making work that feels universal.”