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Stranger in Moscow: Rashid Johnson on His Largest Work To Date, Opening at Russia’s Garage Museum

Rashid Johnson, Within Our Gates, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.COURTESY GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Rashid Johnson, Within Our Gates, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

COURTESY GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

When I arrived at Rashid Johnson’s studio in Bushwick last month, the artist had lost one of those fancy step-counting bracelets. He was trying to track his walks, and how many calories they killed. He had just bought it the other day. So he left his studio in Bushwick to go buy another one, leaving behind a few dozen assistants and metalworkers and a mangy lost dog and adopted bodega cats to carry on for a bit without him.

That he would need another step counter so badly was strange: it’s natural to think of Rashid Johnson as one of the most renowned young American artists, as he shot to prominence when Thelma Golden included his work in show at the Studio Museum when he was just 24. But he’s not quite so young anymore: he’s a nearly 40-year-old dad who needs to make sure he’s getting exercise every once in awhile.

Rashid Johnson.COURTESY PERFORMA

Rashid Johnson.

COURTESY PERFORMA

There was a big board flopped on its back, upon which assistants had placed the Modelos that they were drinking with lunch. Cigarettes ripped indoors were stubbed out on the concrete ground. There was a basketball hoop with a warped rim, bent from dunking. And there were canvases set off in a viewing room, work that’s set to premiere at Hauser & Wirth in September, tile-based paintings—a thing Johnson’s done before, but these were more striking than usual, enormous and with swoops of black weaving through them. He said they’re the culmination of all his tile paintings, the final chapter of this body of work.

Johnson came back in a few minutes later, the search for a step counter unsuccessful, and dragged two chairs in front of the tile works. More pressing than these is the work that’s set to open today at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, Within Our Gates, a grid structure set to fill the entire atrium of the Rem Koolhaas–designed hangar, with live plants and pop-culture ephemera and TVs screening films placed on the rungs of the giant cube edifice. It’s Johnson’s largest work of any kind.

And while the last few years have seen his work displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Kunsthalle in Winterthur, Switzerland, the Venice Biennale, and various outposts of the global Hauser & Wirth empire, this is his first show in Russia.

“I’m screening Rocky IV within the work,” he said, lighting a cigarette from a carton he had snapped up duty-free leaving Italy, where he has a show currently up at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo.

Rocky IV is the one with…” I said.

“Yeah, the one with the Russian,” he said, laughing. Rocky IV is, indeed, the one where Rocky goes to the Soviet Union to fight Ivan Drago to avenge the death of Apollo Creed, wins, and is draped in an American flag. It’s the most commercially successful Rocky movie ever released.

A tile work in Johnson's studio.ARTNEWS

A tile work in Johnson’s studio.

ARTNEWS

“I mean, it was my first introduction to the idea of what Russians were,” Johnson went on. “I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and Rocky IV was a great illustration of that battle between the U.S. and Russia. That, and Red Dawn. It was this weird time. There was nothing more foreign than Russia.”

And for the most part, it is still very foreign. It’s a land marked by political ruthlessness and social intolerance, which can complicate things for a black artist who tackles head-on the issues of racial discord.

“There’s always this thing, what we always hear about—Putin and the other kind of Russians, things that they’ve said about gays and blacks,” he said. “So there’s this fear here that certain people wouldn’t be accepted.” When he visited Russia for the first time, he said, “I didn’t have that experience, but I was in a very cosmopolitan area, very much in a bubble.”

Johnson’s relationship with Garage—which was founded by Dasha Zhukova, the partner of oil billionaire (and longtime Putin ally) Roman Abramovich—is built mostly on his long friendship with the museum’s chief curator, Kate Fowle. Johnson was one of the first people approached for a show after Fowle took the job.

“When Kate got the job as the curator of Garage, she reached out to me pretty quickly,” he said. “It was actually two years later that we decided to do it. I don’t think either of us knew exactly what it was going to be. Even a year ago we didn’t know it was going to be.”

The vision started to firm up when Johnson made his first visit to the museum, and he began discussing with Koolhass how a work could fit into the museum’s large opening atrium, which is flanked on both sides by giant staircases. He decided he wanted to produce another cube-shaped grid work, similar to those shown at his solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles in 2014. (There’s also one, Blocks, that was unveiled on the High Line last May.) The one at Garage, though, would be conceived in an entirely different scale.

“I started thinking about the grid works I had made in the past, and how they functioned in different spaces,” Johnson said. “That space, it really felt like it could facilitate work like this—there’s a lot of natural light on both sides of the atrium, and I was thinking about my use of plants. Obviously natural light is a big plus, not only to see the work, but for the work to function.”

He went out on March 1 to begin an elaborate install. “I’m anticipating a very rigorous, very difficult, and ideally very rewarding installation process,” he said, with some trepidation. And he considers the build-up to be much more than simple prep, as before anything is placed on the bare, black grids, the work had yet to be conceived. “The work isn’t made until it’s being made,” as he put it. The installation, then, is a performance, and the public was invited to come watch. The curious citizens of Moscow watched from outside the windows as he filled the grids with items that he tried to source locally, though his beloved shea butter—a material that pops up in much of his work—had to be shipped from the states.

Garage Museum of Contemporary ArtCOURTESY YURI PALMIN/GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

COURTESY YURI PALMIN/GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

“Could not find shea butter,” he said. “There is a black population in Moscow, not substantial, but apparently they don’t have shea butter.”

Until that process begins, though, it’s hard to describe the work in concrete terms. Johnson says that—as with much of his work—Within Our Gates speaks to the sprawling African diaspora, and the idea of what it would be to be “post-black,” but how exactly it does that is still up in the air.

“What is it exactly? I don’t think I’ve answered that for myself,” he said. “When a work like this is made, so much of what it is is the act of installing and building. All of the pieces have been acquired—the materials have been acquired, the shea butter, the rugs, the film, several of the books, several Russian films that mostly speak to that post-colonial space. As those thing start coming together and those stories are sort of built and these narratives begin to unwind is when I’ll probably understand the work better. Right now, I’m just gathering. For a painter it would be like buying paint and canvas. I just haven’t painted the picture yet.”

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