Art Seen: International

RASHID JOHNSON // HAUSER & WIRTH

by Kostas Prapoglou

Departing from the disturbing image of a young black boy, broadly smiling while pointing a toy gun to his head (a work by French-American street photographer Elliott Erwitt), New York-based artist Rashid Johnson presents his first solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth gallery in London. This exhibition follows his show Three Rooms held at Kunsthalle Winterthur in Switzerland earlier this year. Named after the title of Erwitt’s image, Smile, the London show is comprised of nineteen recent and new works, spanning Savile Row’s South gallery space.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted by the young boy’s cloned photograph, wallpapered throughout the entire main room space. Nine cast bronze rectangular panels with defaced surfaces splattered with black soap and wax are mounted onto the walls, while the boy’s body parts and facial characteristics can still at times be descried through the cut-outs on the panels. Their titles (All Day Sucker, 2014; Isn’t She Lovely, 2014; If It’s Magic, 2014) are tragicomically invaded by a concealed irony.

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Installation view, ‘Rashid Johnson. Smile’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2015 | © Rashid Johnson |Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth | Photo: Alex Delfanne

A major mixed media utilitarian structure dominates as the epicentre of the large room. Constructed with black steel, this 3.5 meter tall matrix of a three-dimensional grid is a disposition of cube-like shelves. The structure is occupied with houseplants and trivial domestic objects, grow lights, deformed shea butter sculptures and stacks of books including copies of Bill Cosby’s bestselling 1986 book Fatherhood, which lends the homonymous title to the entire installation.

An adjacent room encompasses a large-sized mirrored tile work charged with black soap and wax (Them, 2014). It is in conversation with a shea butter sculpture of human-like shape encapsulated within a sapele mahogany table structure [Untitled (shea butter table), 2015] right in front of it. A graphite work on paper with the word RUN inscribed in a naive style (Run, 2015) is placed right opposite the mirror piece.

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Installation view, ‘Rashid Johnson. Smile’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2015 | © Rashid Johnson |Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth | Photo: Alex Delfanne

The back room is populated with six 2.45 x 1.84 meter works all made of white ceramic tiles (a ready-made mapped two-dimensional grid so to speak) with their surfaces embracing, in the same manner as the previous works, enigmatic figures in black soap and wax. The exhibition press release informs us of the artist’s choice, based on autobiographical references, to entitle this series Untitled Anxious Men.

Johnson’s anthology of mediums is consistent—making the employment of black wax, soap, and shea butter his signature materials. These substances have been widely engaged by the African Diaspora, and are heavily associated with the cultural ideology of Afrocentrism in the US towards the end of the twentieth century. The ubiquitous African identity and historical connotations are extensively attested in Johnson’s entire body of work on view at Hauser & Wirth. Even the ‘corporeal’ presence of his Untitled Anxious Men series is evocative of African tribal masks stylistically depicted in the tradition of abstract expressionism.

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Installation view, ‘Rashid Johnson. Smile’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2015 | © Rashid Johnson | Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth | Photo: Alex Delfanne

The works on display are also imbued with a perspicuous flair for geometricism. We detect an emergence of grid formulas rendered within perspectival space, reminiscent of the pioneering oeuvre of constructivists and other twentieth century modernists such as Rodchenko, Popova, Ryndin, Bulatov, Kabakov and the ‘clearer’ modular practice of Sol LeWitt as embodied in the solid anatomy of Fatherhood (2015). The fixed and rigid identity of Fatherhood’s steel frame as well as those bronze wall panels encircling it are challenged by the melting—almost oily—black substance appearing to be in a state of flux; an undeniably powerful statement on the liquidity of societal forms and stereotypes.

Johnson’s visual vocabulary is also enriched with an autobiographical testimony. His bronze wall panels cross-reference the process of having his baby shoes cast in bronze by his mother. Memory and its preservation are key elements that play a pivotal role in the artist’s creative idiosyncrasy. In a similar fashion, the accumulation of objects in Fatherhood (2015) is a statement of domestic life. It is, concurrently, an indirect commentary on the gamut of parenting emotions and practices as described in Cosby’s book, following the firestorm of controversy surrounding the actor’s name. Evidently, the artist appears to have the immense esoteric need to interrogate the role of parenting, as well as to further explore the relationship between parents and children. There is a definite iconographic inter-relation amongst the grinning black boy and those enigmatic black figures featuring Johnson’s works. Could every single of these effigies resemble a mirror image of the artist himself? Is the viewer prompted to also locate personal parameters within Johnson’s visual manifestations and dive into deep Lacanian waters?

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Installation view, ‘Rashid Johnson. Smile’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2015 | © Rashid Johnson |Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth | Photo: Alex Delfanne

The multi-layered hypostasis of Johnson’s works combines a crude confrontational intervention on a personal and inter-personal level in dialogue with aspects of social significance. Created with a sharp curatorial eye, this is without a doubt a stimulating and thought-provoking show, and—what it seems to be—on-going discourse of a self-psychological profile and an emotional journey of a young artist with a sturdy input and lucid contribution towards the international contemporary art scene.


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Kostas Prapoglou is an archaeologist-architect, art writer, critic and curator based in London, UK.

Smile at Hauser & Wirth (South Gallery) London runs until March 7, 2015.

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