Rashid Johnson: Magic Numbers
The George Economou Collection, Athens
20 June – 28 August 2014
by LILLY WEI
Rashid Johnson’s canny, multilayered exhibition Magic Numbers at the George Economou Collection in Athens is another notable example of a private collector sponsoring museum-worthy projects. Curated by the artist in collaboration with Katherine Brinson, an associate curator at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Skarlet Smatana, director of the collection, Magic Numbers centres around a film installation, paintings, a shelf assemblage and large-scale sculptures. Johnson’s signature materials – shea butter, black soap and wax – are in evidence, as well as mirrored tiles, cast bronze, steel and burnt wood, with the addition of books, records and plants.
In nine assertive, interconnected, sometimes enigmatic works, motifs such as crosshair scopes, palm trees, jazz, hip-hop, film and literary references recur, part of a language of signs and symbols resonant with historical, cultural, metaphysical and autobiographical associations. Not to be overlooked is Johnson’s dense barrage of ricocheting narratives and metaphors, which includes the slyly subversive and tongue-in-cheek, as if challenging his viewers to keep up with him as he explores questions of identity and Afrocentrism.
At the heart of the show, says Brinson, is The New Black Yoga (2011), a short film that records five African-American men performing an improvised dance of mixed antecedents. It is presented as a full wall projection in a room that is luxuriously carpeted by oriental rugs inspired by those in Freud’s London study and WEB du Bois’s library in Ghana. These rugs touch on Edward Said’s highly influential 1978 book Orientalism, a critique of the eroticising, exoticising and diminishing of “other” by western “cultural imperialism” and its conflicted, complicated legacies in today’s globalised world. To drive this point home, the rugs are branded like the flesh of slaves and other chattel, the original pattern overlaid with Johnson’s fetishised and emblematic palm trees, crosshairs, winged lions and diamonds.
Johnson, who was born in Chicago and is now based in New York, first received acclaim for his work in Thelma Golden’s heady exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum, Harlem in 2001, in which “post-blackness” and definitions of African-American art and identity were debated and revised by a new generation of practitioners. Injustice and disappointment, Johnson once claimed, remain urgent issues for black artists, but there is also a “life lived outside of those concerns”, a life “after you leave the protest”. For instance, he wondered what Patrice Lumumba [the first democratically elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo] did when he went home.
The following is an edited excerpt from Johnson’s discussion of his recent work during a walkthrough of the exhibition.
Q: Perhaps you could begin by talking about your Shea Butter Landscape (2013) and shea butter, the substance derived from the shea tree of Africa that you use so often?
Rashid Johnson: My first real experience with it was in Ghana. I was 18 or so and it was my first trip to West Africa. I saw these men putting a ton of shea butter on themselves. They were Ashanti warriors and used it as a kind of armour because it made them so slippery that they couldn’t be grabbed. My family was very Afrocentric and had been for three generations, but suddenly, when I turned 13, we stopped being Afrocentric. It was similar to being Jewish all your life and then you weren’t after your bar mitzvah. I was trapped in this space that my parents had created that was no longer relevant. For me, it became the catalyst to investigate – seriously and with humour – an African identity within an American culture.
Q: But while you are having a conversation with these culturally weighted materials, you are also having one with art history, with Joseph Beuys and his materials and ritualistic practices, with minimalism and, increasingly, with painterly abstraction?
RJ: Shea butter’s tactility and visceral qualities are seductive, but I wanted to transform it into a series of different conversations that are formal and about signifiers. The conversation begins with shea butter’s nurturing and healing properties, like Beuys’s fat, and develops from there. So, yes, there is a formalist base to my work: I was trained classically, as classically as it gets.
Q: Black soap and wax, which resembles encaustic, is another material that you often use. For one thing, it takes on the history of the black monochrome and how black becomes fraught in the works of black artists – Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, Adam Pendleton, come to mind – and how abstraction seems never without a narrative in the case of black artists.
RJ: It’s also an unconventional surface for mark-making. I’ve been using it for several years, in paintings such as my series Cosmic Slop or Hollywood Shuffle or 1, 2, 4, for instance. It’s another West African nurturing material used for sensitive skin reappropriated into a signifying and more formalist discourse. But, more than anything, I wanted to use something that has utility; it’s something you can take off the wall and wash yourself in.
When I pour black soap and wax on to a surface, it’s performative, a dance experience. I have only a certain amount of time before it dries; the mark-making, the scratching, the digging-in has to take place within that window of time. When I was younger, I used to breakdance. When you breakdance, you walk in a circle to create the stage for the dance. Pouring the material, I walk around using full-body movements and gestures, moving and mark-making, and I consider it to be the remnants of that performative dance – and Jackson Pollock. I’ve always been drawn to improvisation, to jazz and avant-garde jazz, hip-hop.
The black soap and wax also remind me of a landscape, of lava and volcanic eruptions that slowly solidify; what’s left is a new kind of landscape. It’s a kind of alchemical shift that you’ll see in Cosmic Slop: Hotter than July (2013) and some of the other works upstairs. There is almost a talismanic change in the materials.
Q: Good King (2013) is the most monumental of your mirror and shelf assemblages so far and suggests both domestic architecture and altarpieces. Would you talk a little about it?
RJ: I went to school in Chicago and focused on photography and traditional picture-making. The school curriculum specifically called it picture-making – you couldn’t say you took pictures. But I had a decisive moment and, after that, started to literally “take” pictures, that is, steal them. I didn’t need to make pictures since there were so many in the world that I could steal. One instance of that is the record cover, which I often use. I also think of Du Bois’s theory of “double consciousness” and about being American and black simultaneously, about the multiple locations we occupy, about multiconsciousness and the complicated negotiation of that multiplicity. It is interesting how you absorb the character you are and how you have a relationship to that character, and how unstable it can be, how you imagine your “now character” at any given time. In graduate school, we discussed how you can get up in the morning and, before leaving the house, change something that you see in the mirror – it could be your hair or beard. That last reflection of whatever it was you saw was your now character but the hair, the beard, goes back to what it was before the change, so that reflection is problematic.
Q: Are you proprietary about your materials, about authorship?
RJ: The generation I grew up with always had this feeling of authorship, of authoring a space, and that included materials that you can call your own and no one else can use without referencing you. It’s: “Here’s my stamp, here’s my language, here’s my sense of place.”
Q: Would you talk about your video? You said it began as a lost-in-translation moment and also owes something to Melvin Van Peebles’s films Watermelon Man (1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)?
RJ: It was something that grew out of an earlier work. I was living in Berlin. It was my first time living abroad and I was having all this anxiety. I called a friend, a doctor, and he said I should try yoga. So I found a class, but the instructor told me I wouldn’t be able to do it since I didn’t speak German. I said, I’ll just copy the moves and that should be fine. But that isn’t the way yoga works, it turns out. It interested me. I started to think about choreographing a set of movements that I could perform and film, but then realised I couldn’t do any of those movements. So I shot a film, which I called Black Yoga (2010), of a guy doing a series of yoga movements and, when I got back to New York, I made this more complicated film called The New Black Yogawith five performers on a beach, part of it choreographed, part-improvised, the poses taken from ballet, tai chi, yoga, capoeira and other martial arts with an Eric Dolphy soundtrack. It’s not really clear what’s going on; that’s left to the viewer.
Q: And Hollywood Shuffle (2013)? You named it after Robert Townsend’s 1987 parody of Hollywood that highlighted the impediments black actors faced.
RJ: Yes, when I made this work, it came to mind. It was the first film my parents rented to watch on our new VHS player. It’s by a black director making a film about a black actor, himself, trying to be cast in a film. It becomes a series of films within films within films, all wound inseparably together. But it really started when I re-read Albert Camus’s The Stranger – the moment when he’s walking on the beach, the description of the light as a beautiful orange is amazing. It made me think about how these characters function, about amorphous cliches, these degenerate figures walking in unison, like the figures in the painting, the background of the painting, burned off to make a beautiful light. The five figures in this painting are also an echo of the five performers in The New Black Yoga, the two stories inside this one painting echo the films inside of films in Townsend. The show is about numbers – 1, 2, 4, the number of black wax spatters in each bronze panel – and every number has a story.
Q: The crosshair target as a sculpture, Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (2012), looks both ominous and like an icon from an altarpiece, with a central cross – or like a geometric abstraction, a circle and square.
RJ: I took it from the record covers of the hip-hop group Public Enemy. The source is violent, but here it looks formal.
Q: And the 1, 2, 4; the bronze panels with their abstract expressionist bursts?
RJ: They are a relatively new body of work that I started three years ago. I’ve made very few of them. They’re the first body of work completed outside my studio and are between painting and sculpture, the black soap and wax is poured on to the bronze surface and it is then taken to a foundry. It was like bronzing baby shoes, an opportunity to hold on to a memory, to capture and formalise nostalgia. And when the panels came back, I intervened. I couldn’t help myself. It’s a kind of molestation, a kind of graffiti, a disruption of the permanence of bronze.
Q: Do you make preliminary drawings?
RJ: Sketching is not the most important aspect of my project since it’s already so much about drawing that I don’t need to make another drawing for it. I call it doodling. Every artist has a line that he makes over and over again, and that’s my line, the most natural thing, as recognisable as a fingerprint.
Q: Is being an artist another role? Is it part of your multiconsciousness?
RJ: When I say I’m an artist I sometimes feel I’m playing a role and, sometimes, it’s the only place I am, it’s the only thing. But if I talk about multiconsciousness, then I can be all of these things simultaneously: it gives me more opportunity to frame the conversation. I want to be able to frame the conversation before it is taken away from me.