Mention artist Rashid Johnson’s name and many compelling images come to mind. A signature style does not. That’s one of the most exciting aspects of his 18-year career. At 41, Johnson has executed a lot of highly inventive, original series in a variety of media. Since garnering attention in 2001 with black-and-white photographs included in a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the African-American artist has gone on to paint, make sculpture, do drawings, create collages, site installations, throw pots, piece together mosaics, shoot videos, stage a play in a bathhouse for Performa 13, and even direct a Hollywood movie that’s currently in post-production.
Characterizing Johnson’s practice is complicated further by the way this charismatic, multi-talented artist installs his solo shows, putting different bodies of work in separate spaces. He’s been doing this for a while now. During a conversation with him in his studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn recently, he compared this process to serving “a whole meal.” As he sees it, each display area represents a different course. “You deal with the autonomy of one group of works,” he said, “and then you go into the next space.” That’s how he presented his art in 2016 at Hauser & Wirth in New York and this spring at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles.
There is, to be sure, a method to how Johnson organizes his exhibitions, keeping various categories—or what one might deem landscapes, still lifes, or portraits—separate. Take the case of his Hauser & Worth exhibition. A series of paintings comprised of black faces with spirals for eyes and slash marks for mouths that Johnson made with black soap and wax on white ceramic tiles and titled “Untitled Anxious Audience” ringed a large, rectangular room. These men could have been sports or rock music fans if not for their apprehensive expressions, which suggested that they were witnessing events currently traumatizing the country. In another gallery, there was a massive metal structure reminiscent of those found in stores like Home Depot and Costco. On its shelves, the artist placed cacti and leafy plants in ceramic vessels he himself threw and decorated along with grow lights to keep the lush vegetation alive, plus a host of other elements, including a piano on which a performer played the artist’s own compositions several times a week. In this instance, one section of Hauser & Wirth featured portraits; another, a vast landscape.
At Kordansky, Johnson hung on the walls of a sizable space what he termed “Untitled Microphone Sculptures.” A cross between three-dimensional painting and relief sculpture, these were Combine-like works worthy of Robert Rauschenberg. Besides hidden speakers, there were planes slathered with shea butter, irregularly shaped colored tiles with updated “Anxious Men,” shelves with stacked books (James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, among others), and plants in pots thrown by the artist. On the floor in the middle of this light-filled, high-ceilinged gallery were 30 of what Johnson terms “Ugly Pots,” presented on a Persian rug, paying homage to David Hammons’s Bliz–aard Ball Sale (1983). To my eye, these were all contemporary still lifes.
A smaller room at Kordansky featured the latest ingenious, rainbow-hued, wide-eyed “Anxious Men.” Mosaic-like, these panels were created from irregularly shaped tiles and broken mirrors as well as black spray enamel, oil stick, black soap, and wax. Nearby, a branded walnut table that might have existed as flooring in another situation held a mass of yellow shea butter shapes that were not yet fully formed sculptures. In some ways, they called to mind chicks just emerging from broken eggshells. This gallery’s contents? Yet another manifestation of portraiture.
Though he works with recognizable images, Johnson thinks of himself as an abstract artist. To some extent, he views this designation as “an opportunity for shorthand.” When he’s asked what kind of art he makes by people unfamiliar with his practice—for example, by other parents at his son’s school—he doesn’t quite know how to respond. “When they ask what I do,” he told me, “I say, All kinds. And then they’ll say, What kinds? So, I start talking about materials.”
Johnson’s gift for working with all sorts of materials sets him apart from many of his colleagues and contemporaries. He has used and/or uses bathroom tiles, broken mirrors, wallpaper, travel photographs, Persian rugs, plants, black soap, shea butter, oyster shells, animal skins, books, LP records, red oak flooring, metal shelves, radios, and DVD players.
His interest in making things is rooted, to some extent, in his early experience as a photographer. That’s what he studied to be at Columbia College Chicago in 2000, when all manner of prints were sweeping the art galleries. Or, as he puts it, “Picture makers were at the cutting edge.” “My intellectual curiosity took me there, ” he explained. “I was interested in being in a critical space and a discourse with the potential for what art-making could be.”
As Johnson sees it, “photography gave me a tool to represent the world I was living in.” Besides Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Danny Lyon, all of whose works he studied in the library the summer before he began his freshman year, he also admired the Germans based in Düsseldorf who were then art-world favorites, as well as the African-American photographers Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems.
Instead of going away for graduate school, he studied for a master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which recently awarded him an honorary doctorate. Remaining closer to home—he grew up just outside the Windy City—proved to be catalytic. Because he was young and felt no one cared what he was doing, he has recalled this period as a time when “I could do whatever I wanted. It led me to all the mediums that I use today: painting, sculpture, video, film, even theater.” Since he “didn’t know anyone who made money from their art,” his expectations were limited. He’d probably teach and, if he was lucky, might be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship one day.
While describing his career to me, Johnson explained that his transition to painting “never started with paint.” He’d been using a UV-sensitive photo process. After applying it to surfaces as if he were making photograms, he’d end up with images that weren’t quite representational or abstract. He was hooked.
With a range of materials, Johnson realized he could express himself “formally, critically, conceptually.” When he uses black soap—several black soap paintings were exhibited in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern in New York in 2014–15—“it has content. I’m not just making a gesture,” he has said. Asked about his use of soap, Johnson answered a question with a question, “Who’s going to wash a painting?” As it is, he has noted that many people who use black soap do so to treat skin disorders. “It’s a great metaphor,” he pointed out to me.
Or take shea butter, another unorthodox, malleable substance that’s a cornerstone of his practice. It’s derived from a nut in North Africa. It’s edible, but its healing powers interest Johnson much more. Like black soap, it’s cleansing. It’s an Afrocentric product that was sold in little tubs on the street when the future artist was growing up.
Later, while traveling in Ghana when he was in his 20s, he went to an Ashanti village where he learned that shea butter had been used as “a shield.” Warriors covered their bodies with it to protect themselves. Johnson is intrigued that this is a material with a long history, one that encompasses “war as well as peace.” And when he puts shea butter next to steel, he finds that “they interact in both a formal and visceral way.”
Then there are the plants that Johnson incorporates into so many of his artworks. According to the artist, “they speak to landscape, to nature, to caretaking, to so much else.” If a work includes a plant, he expects people to take care of it. “They become collaborators, and have a responsibility,” he’s said.
Now his team of collaborators—and his audience—is growing even wider. Johnson has just filmed a new version of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son. He finished shooting several weeks ago. Asked how he became a movie director, he mentioned that when he was an undergraduate he took photography courses because he wasn’t able to enroll in filmmaking his freshmen year.
It will be thrilling to see how he handles a feature film, given his ability to create compelling compositions. With Matthew Libatique, his director of photography, who worked on Black Swan and Straight Outta Compton, he’d discuss “which angles would be in the foreground, what would be in the background, how characters were seen in the frame,” he told me.
“I like to tell stories,” Johnson said when we spoke. Within the art world, he has been imparting aspects of the middle-class African-American milieu in which he was raised. With black soap and shea butter, he’s used materials that are “familiar for some, information for others.” That also goes for the books he’s stacked and the record albums he’s leaned on shelves. And then, there are the titles of his solo shows, such as “The Rainbow Sign,” “Sharpening My Oyster Knife,” “Message to Our Folks,” and “Hail We Now Sing Joy,” which he has borrowed from poems, novels, and songs by black writers. Johnson told me, “I’m interested in the way materials affect painting, and how it’s read, its legibility.”