Rashid Johnson’s profoundly striking art unravels the complexities, absurdities and psychology of black cultural identity. As his latest solo show opens at Hauser & Wirth in London, Millie Walton speaks to the artist about developing his artistic tool box, searching for autonomy and appreciating an artwork for what it is
American artist Rashid Johnson is on his ‘daily constitutional’ around his neighbourhood in New York. We’re speaking on the phone to a soundtrack of passing cars, birds singing, the artist’s breath. The walk is a new ‘lockdown’ addition to his daily routine, which, as a self-described ‘creature of habit’, is an essential part of his process and generally, requires him being in the studio from around 9am till 3pm. ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ he says, borrowing a quote from Chuck Close, another American artist. ‘You can’t just wait for it to happen, you have to show up and do it, and ideally at some time during that period something brilliant will happen.’
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Inevitably, brilliance doesn’t always happen, but you don’t get to be one of the world’s most prominent contemporary artists by giving up when things get difficult. ‘As much as people would love for the job of an artist to be joyful, for me, it’s not exclusively that,’ he continues. ‘And I say joy specifically because I don’t really know how to participate in happiness or what that is, whereas I understand joy to be something you experience rather than a state that you stay in. Joy is often what I experience when I make art, and sometimes I experience frustration or disappointment but all of those things feed into what and why I’m doing it.’
Johnson was born in Chicago in 1977 to a generation that ‘came to awareness after the civil rights movement’ and grew up in the age of hip-hop and Black Entertainment Television, developing an interest in ‘ideas and concepts that revolve around race as both an opportunity and an obstacle.’ It was this focus that led to his inclusion in Freestyle, a group exhibition in 2001 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, curated by Thelma Golden who selected up-and-coming artists whom she considered to be ‘post-black’, meaning that their work was not defined by their blackness, but concerned with interrogating complex notions of race. The exhibition, in which Johnson presented portraits of homeless African-American men from his photography series Seeing in the Dark, launched his career as an artist. At the time, he was just 24.
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Originally, however, creative expression came in the form of writing. With a mother who is a poet, writer and lecturer in African American history, he describes developing an early ‘interest in literary scenarios and how you can expand on narrative quality.’ As a result, he wrote a number of short plays and he went off to Columbia College with the idea that ‘it would be really exciting to be a filmmaker’ only to find that he’d registered too late and all of the film classes were full. Instead, he ended up graduating with a BA in photography, and later expanding his practice at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to encompass painting, sculpture, installation and film. His directorial debut, Native Son, premiered on HBO last year.
‘As a younger artist, coming out of graduate school, critical theory and philosophy were really central to how I was looking at the world,’ he says. ‘I was thinking about how I could situate myself in terms of other artists who I thought had made a significant impact, and almost strategically responding to what other artists and thinkers had said and done, but as my project has evolved, I’ve employed a lot more self-reference and started to include more aspects of my own life experience.’ He speaks with the kind of strong, drawling American accent that often presents an impression of nonchalance, but in Johnson’s case, this couldn’t be further from the truth. His responses are lengthy, but precise and considered, revealing a curious mind that eagerly absorbs everything from critical theory and poetry to fairytales and hip hop.
All of these diverse references are fed directly or indirectly back into his art; the most obvious example being his use of non-conventional art materials such as VHS tapes, wooden flooring panels, books, plants and black soap. Shea butter recurs so often that it’s now regarded as one of the signatures of Johnson’s practice, but before that, it was his everyday moisturiser. ‘I was putting it on one day whilst listening to the Tavis Smiley show and I just thought to myself: this is it, this is the honest space, this is a material that I’m actually using in my life and on my body, and it talks about Africanness and displacement and healing and moisturisation and utility, and I need to use it in art,’ he explains. Expanding his tool box in this way helped him to develop a striking visual language that he describes as ‘truly compatible with my thinking.’ He admits, however, that this complex layering of references and emotional signifiers has led to accusations of his past works being ‘opaque’ in the sense that viewers struggle to find entrance points.
Has he ever felt under pressure to make a certain type of art? ‘No, I haven’t felt pressure to be guided in any direction, but I knew that when I made decisions there was going to be a way that they were going to be interpreted,’ he says. ‘In some ways, that’s really served me because oftentimes, as an artist of colour, in particular a black American artist, people imagine that the effects of racism and slavery and other oppressive aspects of our history reflect on me and my project in specific ways, but what I’m really interested in is how those more monolithic racial concerns are filtered through someone like me. I’m searching for autonomy, which I think, in some ways, is what every artist is searching for. None of us want to be the representative of any kind of idea or concern, and that’s not to suggest that I see the purpose of an artist as being an individual genius – I don’t subscribe to that concept at all – but I do see the artist as an individual living in the world and interpreting that world from a very specific location.’
Whilst Johnson’s concerns naturally change and evolve over time, his work is underpinned by a deep connection to and interrogation of the body in its relationship to space, culture, race, politics, and his own personal life. For example, his film The Hikers (2019), which depicts two young black men wearing African-inspired masks dancing in the mountains, is an exploration of physicality in relation to fear and more specifically, the experience of being a black body within white dominated spaces. In contrast, the bodies in his ongoing series Broken Men manifest as static, fractured collages of ceramics, cracked colours and lines. ‘[The Broken Men] represent a different kind of permanence,’ he explains. ‘We have become deconstructed, we will never be the same. I’m not suggesting that the world wasn’t tragic and problematic prior to all of this, which, of course, it was but this is my relationship to it now.’ Such works appear simultaneously timeless and inextricably embedded within the present moment.
This complex relationship to time also relates to the artist’s negotiation of personal and collective narratives. His ongoing series Anxious Men, for example, which depicts singular or groups of rectangular heads with huge, wild eyes and clenched mouths, first began in response to growing police violence and the initial rumblings of Donald Trump running for president alongside the artist’s own journey towards sobriety and becoming a father, but also engages with mental health more generally. ‘That cathartic investigation continues to have purpose for me,’ he says, speaking of the additions to the series, which were created during quarantine and are included in Waves, the artist’s current solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London. Employing the same imagery, these new works are created with oil and linen – ‘the most traditional materials I’ve ever used’ – and the colour red pervades, emphasising a sense of urgency, whilst also demonstrating an awareness that these ‘portraits’ mark a distinct period in his personal and our collective history. This dichotomy is, perhaps, key to understanding the resonating power and originality of his work, but it’s also tied up with the artist’s desire for honesty in how he approaches and makes his art.
Does he ever consider the reaction his works might provoke? ‘Honestly no, and I don’t say that with glee, I make what it is that I feel like I need to make,’ he says. ‘I don’t have any expectations for the audience, but I do have faith in them. People are just so smart even if they don’t have some of the reference points directly available to them, they fill in gaps. At school, we’re taught that every picture is to be interpreted, but I’m not exactly sure that’s the right way to teach how you take in an artwork. Sometimes things can just be what they are. There is agency there for you, if you just look at what it is.’ The rawness of the visual language combined with the titles of his more recent works articulate this same idea, marking a conscious shift away from any sense of previous opacity towards a new kind of emotional openness and vulnerability. These anxious faces and broken bodies are pure expressions of humanity, and an urgent desire to connect.
‘Waves’ by Rashid Johnson runs until 23 December 2020 at Hauser & Wirth, 23 Savile Row, London. For more information visit: hauserwirth.com
Follow the artist on Instagram: @rashidjohnson
This article will also appear in the Spring 2021 Issue, published next year.