May 27–September 10, at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset
Taking its title from James Baldwin’s 1953 Harper’s magazine essay ”Stranger in the Village” about the author’s experience as an African-American living in an all-white village in Switzerland, Rashid Johnson’s show “Stranger” explores notions of foreignness and the exotic after a two-month residency for the artist at Hauser & Wirth’s farmhouse in rural Somerset, England. For Johnson, the bucolic English setting accentuates a sense of dislocation.
The show begins in a brick-walled former Threshing Barn, where Johnson has positioned four stacks of black steel cube grids that evoke Sol Lewitt. Lush tropical plants thrust upward and outward, bursting through the frames, alongside yellow shea-butter sculptures with crude faces gouged into them. Other materials include parachute fabric, neon light tubes, and selected books about “otherness” including Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize-winning The Sellout.
The large-scale arrangements of palms, yuccas, cactuses, and cheese plants refusing to be contained by the black cage-like frames make an odd juxtaposition with the tidy green fields and farmhouses visible through the windows. The gaping eyes and mouths of the butter sculptures add to the impression of four plant monsters uprooted from the jungle and transposed to the countryside. From this animated immersive space one moves to a white room hung with four black-and-white oil-on-cotton rag works labeled Untitled Anxious Drawing. At first glance, they look like grids of abstract black patterns on white ground, but then the grids appear to divide into rows of worried faces peering out through hollow eye sockets with crosshatch mouths.
Employing masks and tropical foliage as leitmotifs, Johnson develops the themes of escape and alienation, all of which might be considered a counterpart to his 2016 show “Fly Away” at Hauser & Wirth in New York, before the U.S. presidential election. The “Anxious Drawings” that Johnson created in Somerset after Donald Trump’s inauguration hark back to his “Untitled Anxious Audience” series, featuring multitudes of fearful faces daubed in black soap and wax on ceramic tile panels, underscoring a persistent sense of collective disquiet.
The sense of unease culminates in the next room, where the viewer is confronted by three ghoulish mask-like faces leering out of ceramic-tile grids, some of which are smashed. A small neon sign urges: RUN. The most theatrical room in the show, it is also the most powerful. Johnson created the square faces by painting black soap and wax on the tile planes and then used a blow torch to melt holes for eyes, mouth, and nose. The process gives the faces a charred, abject appearance, heightened by the gravity-induced stream of drips from necks that evoke blood from severed heads. Beyond alluding to the current sociopolitical climate, these two unsettling works—titled Untitled Clowns—suggest the persecution of the African-Americans through history, recalling the not-so-distant days of lynchings and the recent spate of police killings.
The last two rooms are hung with Johnson’s magnificent collage paintings presenting found images of Africa, including tribal masks, lush jungles, majestic palms, and idyllic beaches. The large vinyl panels are arranged in diamond formations of layered and fragmented photographs daubed with spray paint and melted black oil stick. These works evoke the modernists’ fascination with African exotica while also incorporating Johnson’s personal history. His use of African materials such as shea butter and black soap alludes to his upbringing in Chicago and efforts by his own and other African-American families to connect to their heritage through such products. Johnson seems to be navigating his own identity through this profusion of cultural references while deconstructing Western concepts of Africanness.
Johnson’s show stirs up urgent issues that go beyond America, speaking to a global anxiety amid rising nationalism, intensifying conflicts, and massive population displacement. And closest to where it awaits visitors, as England grapples with the xenophobia and resentment in last summer’s Brexit vote, the exhibition resonates in its own particular way.