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Rashid Johnson: Message To Our Folks

Rashid Johnson, Houses in Motion, 2012. Branded red oak flooring, black soap, wax, and spray enamel, 96 5/8 x 120 5/8 x 2 3/8. Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz Collection, Miami. Image courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (click for larger version)
September 25, 2013
Rashid Johnson is an artist with great intelligence, openness to materials and distinctive mark-making. He uses these ingredients to serve a multi-layered message, with a dash of humor, to museum goers at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum at Washington University.

To be clear, the works in Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks follow no easy recipe. This art resists sorting and boxing into familiar categories.

Born in 1977, Johnson grew up in Chicago, with middle-class parents who typically wore dashikis, celebrated Kwanzaa and lived an Afrocentric lifestyle – until they suddenly abandoned all this about the time he was 13 years old. This lifestyle change may have shaped Johnson's approach to art and his strength in making personal decisions, rather than yielding to cultural expectations.

His work borrows from art history, contemporary culture and his own life experiences, uniting forms and concepts and using materials in autobiographical ways. Free from loading political content into his work, he focuses on his own experience.

In his early 20s, Johnson rose to prominence as a photographer, with a series of elegantly beautiful portraits of homeless men, where he brushed Van Dyke brown onto the prints in a painterly way – an early 20th century Kallitype technique. No specific details reveal the men's homelessness. Yet, in works like "Jonathan with Eyes Closed," Johnson connects the viewer with the scars and suffering in these men's lives.

With intelligent humor and artful style, Johnson's photo portraiture also makes references to black cultural icons – Frederick Douglass, Emmett Till and W.E.B. DuBois – sometimes employing multiple images to question and explore identity.

Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait Laying on Jack Johnson's Grave, 2006. Lambda print, 40 1/2 x 49 1/2. Collection of Dr. Daniel S. Berger, Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist (click for larger version)
Johnson photographed himself hip-hop dancing on the tombstone of early 20th century boxing champion Jack Johnson. He was unsatisfied with all but one photograph of himself, finally exhausted, "Self Portrait Laying on Jack Johnson's Grave."

With "Houses in Motion," a large new work that may at first resemble a painting, Johnson has scarred a large red oak floor with a custom-made branding iron. The branded symbol, crosshairs of a gunsight, is repeated in several of Johnson's works and was appropriated from the logo of Public Enemy, a 1980s rap group. Among the crosshairs are diamond and palm tree images, suggesting "otherness" and class disparity. Johnson saw no palm trees in Chicago – they were symbols of islands, leisure and difference – and the palm fronds might also be seen as a witty reference to marijuana.

Rashid Johnson, Jonathan with Eyes Closed, 1999. Toned silver gelatin print, 21 1/2 x 27 1/2. Collection of Paul and Dedrea Gray, Chicago. Photo by Michael Propea, Chicago (click for larger version)
Investigating different layers of meanings, Johnson explores elements of personal significance in "The Moment of Creation." He talks of "hi-jacking the domestic" in appropriating books from his mother's library, a CB radio, album covers of music he likes, containers of African shea butter and black soap. These, along with a living plant, rest on multi-fragmented mirrored shelves, arranged to suggest altar or ritual identity. Dripping gold paint brings association of graffiti, as well as abstract expressionism. Waxy encaustic materials of black soap and ash give texture to the artist's mark-marking on the architecturally assembled mirrors.

This incredibly smart and beautiful exhibition was curated for the Kemper by Meredith Malone and organized by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Widholm's insightful catalogue is well worth the read.

This is Johnson's first major solo museum show and reconfirms the Kemper as a major player in American contemporary art. With the mind-brilliance of a trickster, precision in assembling materials and originality in mark-making, Johnson establishes an identity way beyond the "post-black" label laid on him a dozen years ago. He is a major American artist in the 21st century.

This is not a breeze-through museum visit (as if any should be). Plan to spend some time here, to understand and appreciate the depth of Johnson's complexity.

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks is on display through Jan. 6 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. For more information, visit www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.

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