It’s more than a cliché today to point to a grand show at a commercial gallery in New York and say that it reflects the current sociopolitical climate, but in the case of Rashid Johnson’s solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, that claim is merited. “Fly Away” tackles the complexities of living as a black American, with extraordinary intelligence and grace.
In the gallery’s massive first room, viewers are confronted with six large-scale canvases. At first glance, these seven-foot-long works seem tailor-made to bait collectors. Done on white bathroom tiles, the paintings are semi-abstract portraits of cartoon-like men, reminiscent of some that might appear in a Basquiat, arranged in rows and smeared with black soap and wax. When viewed from the center of the gallery, the suite of paintings assumes the guise of a chorus of people, which is fitting, since the paintings are all titled Untitled Anxious Audience (all 2016). My first reaction: it was wonderfully empowering to see so many black faces in a major gallery that still predominately represents white artists. After longer observation, however, the look of anxiety on these men’s faces started to set in, and the works appeared to be an elegy—on five of the pieces, there are empty spaces where a figure has been mysteriously erased.
In the next room, Johnson presents three wall pieces and one installation featuring shea butter atop a wooden table. In the wall pieces there are upside-down robot-like figures with heads that recall those in the black-soap paintings. They all incorporate cracked mirrors in their compositions, and in turn incorporate viewers into the work, allowing them to see themselves. These pieces, titled Falling Man, ask onlookers to question what happens when they are reflected in the shattered glass. Are the breaks accidental, or is there a reason why they’re there? Could they have been caused by bullets? In seeing their reflections, cracked by a bullet hole, perhaps viewers will begin to wonder what role they play in our ongoing discussions—and realities—about racial violence in America.
The show is dominated by Johnson’s large-scale installation, Antoine’s Organ (2016), a cage-like black steel structure that includes living plants and is lined with small video monitors and several copies of books about the black experience in America, including Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). In the center of the installation rests a piano. At designated times, Antoine Baldwin steps into the installation and plays jazz pieces of his own composition. His performances bring the exhibition to a resounding head, giving viewers a massive space in which to mill about, listen, and reflect.
In thinking about this exhibition, one can’t help recall Michelle Obama’s resounding speech at the Democratic National Convention this past summer, when she said, “When they go low, we go high.” With this exhibition, that is exactly where Johnson takes us—a new high of beauty, where art transcends uncertain times to renew hope.