I have to say I have a totally newfound respect for Rashid Johnson’s work after hearing him speak this past Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Message to Our Folks, his first major solo museum show, has been titled after a 1969 album by the avant garde jazz troupe called Art Ensemble Chicago. He selected the title because he liked the idea of “folks.” He wondered who are “our folks?” Who is the collective us? Who is the message to?
Viewers will either be embraced or distanced by the title. It was conscious decision to put the title inside the first gallery as opposed to the more common practice of placing it and the introductory wall text outside of the galleries. He wanted the viewer to read about the show while standing on an actual work, the wooden floor. He made the crowd laugh by describing his desire to make the viewer look down in the first gallery (at the floor), up in the second (at the salon style hanging of photographs), and then down again at a work called “Black Yoga” which consists of a Persian rug and a video monitor of a man doing yoga all placed on the floor in the middle of the gallery. By nodding your head up and down by the time you make it to the third gallery, “you’ve already agreed with the show,” he stated.
Over his 14 year career, Rashid’s work has been about the exploration of the physicality of materials–an investigation of both visual and conceptual constructions of identity and abstraction using commonplace objects such as plants, books, records, soap and shea butter. He appropriates and his work is riddled with art historical references. Of course, his experience as a black man in the United States informs his entire oeuvre.
Rashid explained to the large crowd who had gathered to hear him speak to the curator of the exhibition, Julie Rodrigues Widholm, that he uses materials that he was influenced by that had significance for him. The work is informed by these known materials. (Persian rugs from a trip to West Africa, shea butter from growing up in a home that used it for healing, plants which require the nurturing touch of the owner, CB radios that he and his dad used.) Viewers can either identify with the objects, making it a shared conversation, “a collective conversation,” or not. But things are continuously introduced and reintroduced in his work. Though being a black man influences his output, he explained that he experienced no trauma as a result of it, and he was careful to make the distinction between a person’s history and a collective history. He deals with his neuroses more than any tragedies in his work. Rashid’s very educated history involved both a grandmother who attended college and a mother who was a professor at Northwestern–a historian and thus historical figures were very important in his house. An example of this can be seen in a photograph titled “Self-Portrait with my hair parted like Frederick Douglass.” He wondered, if you part your hair like a brilliant man, do you get any closer to being a brilliant man?
His interest in photography began when he worked with a wedding photographer; it eventually led him to portraiture and then he became the subject of his photographs. That led to his interest in light and the question how does light interact with surfaces? How is work brought to life by the way light reacts to it?
I really like what he said about his fascination with people who live somewhere but don’t really live there–they live in the past where their history is. He is interested in finding a “now” space. Rashid wants to connect to his own experience rather than live through experiences of people who came before him. He grew up in a home filled with Afro-centrism early on but that stopped and he told the audience that he felt abandoned. He said it’s like having a Bar Mitzvah and then having your parents tell you that the family is not going to be Jewish anymore. His value system had shifted and he had to negotiate how to live in the world after that. It is for this reason, and others, that the shifting nature of identity is a recurring theme for Rashid.
Julie asked him about how and why he makes what are considered paintings without actually using paint. He said “I have always been enormously concerned with painting, I have never been concerned with paint.” His floor pieces are actually subtractive, not additive. He considers himself a “photographer that came to sculpture and my sculpture looks like paintings.”
I am quite drawn to his branded oak floor works which he began recently in 2011. When hung on a wall, Rashid feels that they recall 1970s wood paneling. When asked about the iconography of palm trees and the cross hairs of a shotgun, he has logical explanations. Palm trees represented an opportunity, an escape vehicle. Being from Chicago, a trip to a destination with palm trees seemed like a privilege; it provided access. The cross hairs came from the logo of a group he loves, Public Enemy. He just loves the symbol which he finds formally aggressive. Across from the salon of photographs is a mirrored work which has the word “run” spray painted in white on it. Rashid is drawn to the word because it is the quick suggestion of something that moves your body. He likes simple suggestions that are significant and the word “run” and the cross hairs have a similar feeling. Is the gun pointing at me or am I pointing it at someone else? He explained that his work has no clear agenda but presents many views, some of them conflicting.
When asked why he uses mirrors in his work he brought it back to the discussion of “nowness” that began in graduate school. He gave the example of fixing one last thing in a mirror before you turn around and walk out into the world. We never seem to care or acknowledge that 10 minutes later that same flaw we fixed will be back. It is our “now” character who believes that what people see is the image we just saw in the mirror. We seem to know who we are in that “now” moment and we stay with that when presenting ourselves to the world.
When asked about his use of oyster shells, he told us about an essay called “Sharpening My Oyster Knife” that he found interesting. He explained that there is never a need to sharpen an oyster knife. The author is subtly saying in her work, don’t worry about me, I am fine. I’m just sharpening my oyster knife. He thought it was brilliant.
Another literary reference was explained. In a large central work there is a book, The End of Blackness. Rashid told his audience that he was intrigued by the theories in the book. He went on to explain that if you can walk up to something then we can experience it together. But a collective group cannot walk up to concepts such as “blackness” so it cannot be monolithic.
In the first gallery “Sweet Sweet Runner” is a video from 2010 that references an independent film in which a black protagonist runs from white authorities. In this version, the protagonist is simply going on a jog in Central Park. In the next gallery, Rashid’s emotive portraits highlight the humanity of his subjects. One series considers black subjects within the history of photography. The double images and reflective nature in his pieces are influences from W.E. B. DuBois’s notion of “double consciousness” when one always looks at one’s self through the eyes of others.
A thorough look at the work of an artist who still has much to offer us.
April 16, 2012 | Filed under Art Seen: Chicago and tagged with Black Yoga, Chicago contemporary art, Chicago exhibitions, Fatherhood as Described by Paul Beatty, MCA, MCA Chicago, Message to Our Folks, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Rashid Johnson, Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, Self-Portrait with my hair parted like Frederick Douglass, The Shuttle, Triple Consciousness.
Tags: Black Yoga, Chicago contemporary art, Chicago exhibitions, Fatherhood as Described by Paul Beatty, MCA, MCA Chicago, Message to Our Folks, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Rashid Johnson, Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, Self-Portrait with my hair parted like Frederick Douglass, The Shuttle, Triple Consciousness