By Jason Foumberg
In 2004, Rashid Johnson was named a “Breakout Artist” by this publication in our annual feature of the best emerging artists in Chicago. The following year Johnson relocated to New York City, interrupting his pursuit of an MFA degree from SAIC to chase his rising star. Now, at just thirty-four years old, Johnson, who was born and raised here, returns to Chicago for a mid-career survey at the MCA, titled “Message to Our Folks.”
“You’ve changed” is the oft-expressed reaction to a homecoming, and indeed, Johnson’s work has changed since his days in Chicago. Early on, Johnson pursued direct provocations of black male identity as his photographs examined, in vivid detail, the weathered skin of a homeless man and the artist’s own naked body. Shortly after relocating, Johnson expanded his materials list to include painting, sculpture, video and installation, and he turned his attention away from straightforward race politics toward the complex cultural history of black Americana.
The best of Johnson’s new work reinvents familiar home furnishings and décor into altars of personal symbolism. Their structures are often indebted to, and riff on, late-twentieth-century vernacular interiors: a profusion of mirrors, home-entertainment centers, a zebra-fur bench and hardwood flooring, adorned with household icons (Bill Cosby, Al Green, kung fu and soul food), and often topped with houseplants. These are amalgams of the family kitsch hutch, the sleek, chic bachelor pleasure pad, and the remembrance of a middle-class past, gilded by a patina of boyhood rebellion. Many of these objects productively mix allusions, which are inventoried in the curator’s catalog essay, but their power is in their collective visual confusion as Johnson articulates a collaged identity compelled by personal taste. There’s a quality of adolescent homesickness to it all, with Johnson as the tortured afro-goth who smashes mirrors, paints black monochromes, and plays dead upon a gravestone of his own namesake. The message in “Message to Our Folks,” then, is an extended critique of black middle-class family life, its material culture and legacy.
In a recent interview with Art in America, Johnson offers “black neurosis” as the generative idea in his newer work. ”Black neurosis” is a pseudo-psychosocial prognosis that describes the anxiety which swells the gap between American middle-class life and traditional African culture. Real attempts to confront black neurosis have been successful. For example, Diane Grams’ 2010 book, “Producing Local Color: Art Networks in Ethnic Chicago,” describes the emergent “contemporary black middle class” in Chicago and the growth of an art gallery district in Bronzeville, which caters specifically to “black aesthetics.” As Bronzeville residents have not historically sat on the boards of the city’s major art museums, a grassroots, middle-class collector base was cultivated there, effectively transforming black neurosis into black empowerment.
Johnson does not mollify the anxiety of black neurosis in his work, but uses it to produce tortured, expressionist paintings dripping with self-seriousness. Unfortunately, Johnson is currently branding his works with a firearm crosshairs logo. The crosshairs make a monolithic appearance in the gallery as a steel sculpture, with gallery visitors placed on either side, as hunters or prey. This too-easy symbol of victimhood—a strategy that Johnson explicitly reproves in his Art in America interview—diminishes the joy of Johnson’s recent play with cultural arcana such as mysticism, jazz and household philosophers. The crosshairs are a step backwards for Johnson. Like Theaster Gates’ race-riot-hose sculptures, they provoke and palliate racial guilt in a single gesture. It is a retrograde, essentialist tactic that today delivers a simulacrum of feel-good retribution and guilt-cleansing into the hands of the art collector/consumer/victimizer.
The crosshairs motif fail for me because Johnson’s work is not about racism; it is about race, and that means it is about culture and relationships and life. At his best, Johnson is adept at creating powerful visual and bodily experiences, such as the enveloping, sixteen-by-sixteen foot “Cosmic Dojo” (2009). This massive black canvas is a stand-in for Johnson’s best-known early photograph, a full-size, full-length nude self-portrait, which is absent from the survey. Both works dominate the viewer and express fecund energy. Hopefully there is still room to grow.
Rashid Johnson shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, through August 5.