Rashid Johnson – The Escape Artist

The Hikers, 2019. Photo: Hauser & Wirth
The Hikers, 2019. Photo: Hauser & Wirth

Rashid Johnson is a man of many talents; employing a wide range of media to explore the history of art and the art of black history, the individual and the shared identities of his personal narrative.

Johnson is well known for incorporating a wide range of everyday objects and materials into his work, often reflecting back to his childhood and referencing aspects of his African American heritage; the cultural identity mixed with symbolism he calls appropriated history.

Born in Chicago in 1977 in a diverse part of Chicago to an academic mother and a father who left the household when Johnson was two years old. Dr Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Johnson’s mother remarried a man of African descent. Here history was appropriated and the pathway to what we see today is formed.

Johnson gained his Bachelor of Arts (BFA) from Columbia College, Chicago in 2000. Columbia boasts an impressive list of alumni including contemporary visual artist The MazeKing and Chester Alamo-Costello and even Kanye West. Moving on to the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 2005 gaining a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA)

Rashid Johnson. Photo: CNN

Post-Black Culture

In 2001 Johnson met Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Johnson talks about how he walked into the Studio Museum and presented his portfolio uninvited to Thelma Golden who happened by chance to be present on that day. Much to his surprise what followed was an inclusion in an exhibition called “Freestyle“, this was pivotal in Johnson’s career.

Freestyle incorporated Thelma Golden’s concept of “post-black” culture. This term refers to art in which race and racism are prominent but where the importance of the interaction of the two is diminished. With this in mind, Johnson presented an idea he had been working on for some time.  

The Hikers, solo show 2019. Photo: Artfacts

Taking his practice of making mixed-media art and incorporating objects considered to be relevant in black culture. For example, watermelon seeds, cotton and chicken bones are placed on a canvas or, in this case, photographic paper, and using a process called Van Dyke Brown creates an image. 

The Van Dyke Brown process involves coating a canvas with ferric ammonium citrate and tartaric acid with silver nitrate and exposing the objects chosen to ultraviolet light giving the finished print a ghostly effect. It was this effect and this type of art that, because it was different from anything seen previously, propelled Johnson into the limelight.

And in doing that the exhibition and the term post-black forced Johnson to review the way he considers himself and others. He talks about his maleness, blackness and Americanness and what it means to be all of those things rolled into one person. In doing so referencing outside influences, such as hip-hop culture, black entertainment TV – Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a 90s sitcom and of course music, jazz in particular.

2002 saw an exhibit called Manumission Papers. This is the name of the papers that freed slaves were required to have in order to prove and maintain their freedom. Again a photo-emulsion print of images related to the 2001 exhibition following the same theme.

Meeting Michelle Obama 

Also in 2002, Johnson presents an exhibition about homeless black men called Seeing in the Dark, which features a series of photos taken in 1999. Continuing with the political theme, Johnson exhibits a mixed media event called The Evolution of the Negro Political Costume to which black politicians, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Barack Obama are all represented in the outfits they wore. 

The dashiki came from Jesse Jackson, a jumpsuit from Al Sharpton and a silk Salvatore Ferragamo suit represents Barack Obama. Interestingly Johnson says he approached Michelle Obama about the project and she was delighted to donate a suit but commented that Barrack only had two suits. So Johnson donated his own suit with Michelle’s blessing, the suits are part of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum today.

It is at this point Johnson becomes obsessed with the idea of escape and coins the phrase “escape artist”. The idea of distraction or a release from reality through art and fantasy. After a visit to Florida, and then to Texas, the use of the outside becomes part of inside, an exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art called The Production of Escapism includes symbols of escape, holiday or paradise such as palm trees and seascape start to emerge in the art that follows. 

Cosmic Slop

Johnson goes on to describe how the relationship with his mother and the shea butter she brought back from Africa created a need to moisturize the scorched earth. The combination of heat and shea butter developed further into what he calls a black soap and wax “cosmic slop”—the name is straight out of a Funkadelic song. This ‘slop’ punctuates the art from that moment on.

Johnson is not without his critics and in 2005, after taking part in a cultural exchange with Taiwanese artists, the resulting artwork was called “sloganeering or cute self-advertising” about his two-dimensional works, and his apolitical three-dimensional installations as “glib and superficial” representations. 

Untitled Escape Collage. Executed in 2018. Photo: Christies.com

Critic Alan G. Artner from the Chicago Tribune went on to say, “He classified Johnson’s work as more suitable for the audience seeking nothing more than American pop culture”. Artner also derided Johnson’s short video contribution to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fool’s Paradise exhibition as a conflation of gospel singing with beatboxing… that says nothing worth saying about race. Johnson shrugs off this as “just an opinion”.

As interesting as it is to document step by step the rise of Johnson, the most arresting thing about this artist came to light in an interview on YouTube where he talked about his anxiety and struggles with anxiety that a lot of black men, in particular, feel and Johnson wants to tell people they are not alone and he does that eloquently.

Anxious Man

Step forward the exhibition Anxious Man 2015: one gets the feeling that Johnson is now where he wants to be, following that with an Anxious Audience in 2017 and The Hikers mixed media presentation including a film, ceramic tiles mosaic, collage painting and sculpture about the representation of the black body and how other see it and following on with the theme of anxiety.

Today Johnson is living and working in New York, Johnson is married and has a son. It’s his son future that has propelled his art further forward, and the political landscape of Trump’s administration and the attacks on young black men, all these factors have driven the softly-spoken man to become much more vocal. And I, for one, will listen.

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