An interview with Rashid Johnson: “I was more African before going to Africa”

Paul Laster

The youngest artist in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s seminal 2001 exhibition “Freestyle,” Rashid Johnson embraced curator Thelma Golden’s controversial notion of “post-black” culture more than any other artist in that show. Fifteen years later, Johnson’s mixed-media practice has grown to encompass a wide range of everyday materials and objects while exploring diverse ways of working to express his personal experience and history as a black American. Fresh off of museum shows in Moscow and Begamo, Johnson sat down with Conceptual Fine Arts to discuss his fourth solo show with Hauser & Wirth and his biggest exhibition to date in New York.

You started out as a photographer, but have transitioned into a conceptual artist with a multidisciplinary practice. How and why did you make that move?

I’ve always had an interest in a variety of mediums. My first interest was painting and sculpture in a traditional sense, but when I went to college I studied photography. I felt that everyone else in the class would know so much more about the medium than I did so I went to the library and looked at photography books all summer long. It helped me to understand images and aided me in mimicking the sophisticated aesthetic decisions of the artists that I admired—artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Danny Lyon, who are still influential to me today. The first works that I exhibited as an artist, when I was still in school, were photographs.

Is that what led to your showing photography in the “Freestyle” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001?

Yes, when Thelma Golden put me in the show she gravitated toward what I was doing with photography—even though I was already making other kinds of work. There weren’t many other artists in the show doing what I was doing with photography so I think that’s why she wanted to include me that way. That was my introduction to the art world, which is why I believe most people think of me as a photographer. As I got more opportunities to exhibit my work some of the things that I had been working with for years started to take center stage.

What role does photography play in your work now?

It plays a huge role. It plays a role in almost all of the ways that I work. I talk a lot about taking—subtraction, as opposed to addition. Photography is inherently a subtractive medium. It’s performed; you push a button and take an image. You’re capturing an image, stealing an image. That language is very interesting. A lot of the ways that I play with painting and sculpture is about that kind of reduction. It’s about taking material away. When you look at the Anxious Audiences in this show, you see that the material is poured onto the surface and the actual images are made through subtraction—through scratching away the poured material. That idea of subtraction, of taking away, is so much what photography deals with and in many ways it’s what I’ve dealt with even in my painting and sculpture practice.

One of the things that make your work unique is your ability for mixing biographical information with culturally charged content. How did you develop this way of working?

From the onset I came by it honest. The things that I talk about in the work are things that are really concerns of mine. Whether they’re about anxiety from a personal space or from a collective space. I’m very interested in how the personal and collective meet, how often they meet, and how much we’re negotiating with our own biographies and the way that relates to the collective understanding of the world and how the experiences that we share come together. I’ve always said that I’m not invested in blackness in a monolithic way. Some of my work has dealt with my experience—whether it’s my experience as a male, my experience as an American, or my experience now as a father, and especially my experience as a black person in this country. They all have substantial affects on my working philosophy. If I am speaking clearly from my own perspective, if it touches on those concerns, it becomes legible in ways that are engaging and complex. If I didn’t take into effect that which is personal with these kinds of things the work would lack sincerity.

So are you speaking to your own history and identity formation rather than a generic black history?

I hope so. I honestly don’t think that I’m capable of producing language for a generic black history. There’s a great quote by Aaron McGruder, who wrote The Boondocks comic strip and later made an animated series about it. He animated these two young characters where one says to the other, “Why do all black people think that they’ve been chased by dogs and sprayed by hoses?” It made me realize that when we try to live someone else’s history, someone else’s experience, we’re not doing that experience justice. For us to be honest we have to take into account what our own experiences are and how they have affected us. Just because you didn’t have a specific kind of relationship to history doesn’t mean that the history that you’ve lived is not valuable, important and engaging. I try to be conscious of how my own experiences have affected the way that I make things and the way that I see the world, with a cognizance of history and thinking about how history and things that were antecedents have affected me.

You’ve developed a distinct vocabulary of materials and signifiers for your work, including such culturally resonant products as shea butter and black soap and classics of black literature like Native Son and The Soul of Black Folk. Why do you continue to use this elements and what’s their significance to you?

A lot of the things that I use are things that I love and—in a way—need. I was first exposed to many of these things as a young man. My mother is an African history professor so she would have these kinds of materials around the house. When I got older and started to see how things like shea butter and black soap were African products that really speak to an African American audience. They were delivered and sold on the streets of Harlem and the streets of Brooklyn and on the South Side of Chicago. I thought about what these materials must mean to the people that are using them and came to the conclusion that they were a way to culturise oneself in Africanness as you’re exploring or looking for an identity, especially in a country that has had such a complicated history with the people. Because of the lack of information that most Americans have about their ancestry they try to build their own histories, build a narrative or bridge to that African experience. There’s an absurdity to it, but it’s also really poetic. Those materials came to me while thinking about how that bridge functions and what that language looks like and how you can adopt the foreign space and the application of that foreign space to your body and how misinformed that can be. In my subsequent trips to Africa I’ve come away with the sense of how African I am not, more than how African I am. I was more African before going to Africa than I was ever after visiting there. It’s a complicated connection and those materials expand upon how complicated that connection can be. In regard to the literature, these were all books introduced to me by my mother, so again it’s autobiographical, which is the reason that I employ them. They are important kind of things to have at your fingertips. If my work in any way tends to be generous, which I think it does (I like to be really conscious of what it is I’m giving) it goes back to the dichotomous characters in these books. It expands on the complexity and kind of elastic quality that the black experience is capable of conveying.

The six big Anxious Audience works, which are loose portraits of black figures on a white ground, display a tension between black and white, figuration and abstraction and sullied nature of the medium of black soap and wax on the clean grid of white tiles. What’s the metaphor you’re dealing with in these pieces?

I never really make a work with a metaphor in mind. I don’t often speak in metaphors and I don’t think my work is read clearly through metaphors. I allow people to participate in whatever way they feel comfortable, but I believe that one of the things that I’m dealing with—something that the title gives you—is anxiety. As I started making this work I was personally dealing with different things that were changing in my life and we were collectively dealing with things that are changing and evolving in America and the world. Both of those things tied together provided a cathartic opportunity for creating those faces. I was thinking about my own state of mind. While making those scrawled faces and seeing myself reflected in them, I saw them as incredibly anxious characters. The idea of anxiety and the idea of a world that’s not giving us as many answers as we have questions is something that I’m definitely negotiating in this body of work.

You also use the tile as a ground for the three large Untitled Escape Collages, which utilise stock photos of tropical realms layered with gestural sprays of colour and bombardments of black soap and wax. You’ve addressed the notion of escape in past works. What’s your fascination with it?

I’m really interested in the history of escape and how we try to explore it. The idea that we haven’t found this promise land is one that I find to be really valuable in how I continue to see the world and how I continue to explore it. Escape can be addressed in a lot of different ways, whether you escape into a book or escape into a film. Freud talks about those things as these small deaths in The Uncanny and Derrida about it in his book The Gift of Death. I’m talking about it to some degree in the title of this show, which is “Fly Away.” There’s a huge and complicated story that black Americans have had with escape, whether you consider the South to the North or Marcus Garvey saying let’s go back to Africa or Sun Ra claiming he’s from Saturn or the writer Paul Beatty suggesting that all blacks should commit suicide as a way to get off the plantation, fairly humorously. The idea of kind of being in limbo, as a young person thinking where could I go. We all think these things, like where could we move to and what are we looking for, right? We’re looking to escape some facet of how complicated our lives are. From a young man until today it’s something that I’m still interested in exploring and thinking about, and it feels very optimistic.

In the three large Falling Men works, you have pixelated figures falling or flying through shattered and soiled realms. Do these spaces—constructed from mirrors and floorboards—represent urban decay or broken dreams that the men have to conquer or traverse?

They could be exploring those things, but I almost see them in a larger, existential context. These characters aren’t flailing. In the sense they’ve accepted their fate and feel comfortable with it. Even though I call them falling men, they could also be flying. They also connect a lot of different material that I’ve worked with in the past and that kind of connected tissue is something that I want to understand and explore, both aesthetically and conceptually. To be completely honest, those are things I’m still trying to understand. I’ve been living with those pieces now for almost a year and I don’t think that they’ve told me their whole truth yet.

There’s also a massive wooden table that’s branded with symbols and covered with an oriental rug and shea butter busts and a plant. Are you using display as a medium in your work, and if so to what end?

It’s not as much display for me as it is utility, and the idea of an object can be employed. I’ve always been interested in how an object can be brought to life and can be used by its audience. The idea that you know what this object is, which happens with quite a few materials in the show—whether it be tile or mirror. Materials that are found in art supply store can be very foreign because people don’t know what to do with stretcher bars or canvas. They know that it’s a special person’s tool and that tool is to be employed by a person that’s a magician. That’s what the artist is. It’s someone that can take a foreign material and transform it. More often than not you use materials that are not foreign, materials that you employ and understand for what they are, whether that be tile or mirror or wood flooring—we know what it is. This is an expansion of things that I’ve always been interested in, how the domestic becomes formally and aesthetically linked to my practice. By changing what it does for you in that moment you feel invited into the conversation and then given an opportunity to participate with it in a different way. That’s one of the reasons why I continue to explore materials that we have a relation to, like tables and rugs—things that we understand in a semiotic sense. I’m interested in transforming those things and try to explore them with a little more rigor.

Display also seems to be at the heart of Antoine’s Organ, the giant installation in the show that juxtaposes plants with cultural objects, CB radios and Afrocentric products. What’s the magic to the mix?

Paradox. It’s a fairly complicated object in the way that it mixes materials—the hardness of the steel, the fragility and variety of the plants, the softness of the shea butter, the generosity of the books. I put all of these things together to consider how they function together materially, how they function together critically and conceptually and what they are capable of forming together. We’re forced to consider the antecedents to this work and the antecedent artists. There’s been a suggestion of Sol LeWitt and I think about that. He’s an artist that interests me. I think about occupation, like squatting inside of a LeWitt, placing these other materials and this language inside of that antecedent language. Or one could think of Marcel Broodthaers—there are quite a few opportunities or reference points, but in the end it’s very much mine, and it’s an escapist space.

You’ve made these types of big gridded shelf installations before, but this one has a new element, a performance. What do hope the presence of Antoine Baldwin, aka Audio BLK, improvising on an upright piano in the center of the piece will add to the work?

This show has so much to do with the body, whether it’s the falling men or the busts or the anxious audience. I really wanted to try to bring the body into one of these sculptures. I’ve done a few of them in the past, but you could rarely enter into them. I wanted to put someone into one of them, where it’s their habitat. When I was introduced to Antoine he didn’t have a piano so I bought him one and invited him to play in my studio as I made work for the show. As I started to think about this large sculpture I thought I want Antoine to be inside of it and I want him to turn it on.

There’s almost a shamanistic aspect to your use of materials. Do you have a fascination with mysticism and, if yes, why?

Who doesn’t have a fascination with mysticism? Art is mystic in its own right. Do I have any specific ambition to be seen that way? No more than anyone else, but my use of materials, whether it begins to conjure up the idea of mysticism or not, is very mystical to me. These are the materials that I know. As an artist, you become accustomed to working with certain things. For some it’s oil paint; for me it’s black soap and shea butter. Those are the things that I know how to use, how to manipulate. They speak a language that I understand, a language that is able to do more than one thing at a time. The fact that those materials have to be both signifiers and tools for aesthetic rumination is what keeps me using them.

October 26, 2016