Rashid Johnson: Shelter

This review of Rashid Johnson’s Shelter at South London Gallery, was published in Art Monthly issue 361, November 2012

New York-based Rashid Johnson is an artist concerned with exploring the iconographic networks underpinning his cultural identity as an African American male. The methodology used in the construction of his media-referencing sculptural works and assemblages is a contemporary, largely depoliticised spin on the old discipline of appropriation. So what may traditionally read as a gesture of culture-industry critique in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, or more recently in Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken’s Xerox works, is here repackaged as the less subversive activity of postproduction, sampling or, to hazard an overarching explanation, remixology. Another distinction is that Johnson’s use of cultural ephemera is self-referential; it seeks to draw on and harness the socio-cultural resonances of media artefacts, not to reveal their inherent meaninglessness. By incorporating objects and symbols into his work, taken specifically from the canon of African American cultural history, Johnson is displaying the constituent parts of his ethnic identity so that we may know what it and, by extension, a certain US conception of blackness are made of. In other words, the work of Rashid Johnson is all about Rashid Johnson. Unfortunately this makes the fictional narrative used to support his first solo exhibition in the UK difficult to swallow.

According to South London Gallery’s interpretation, ‘Shelter’ has been inspired by an ‘imagined society in which psychotherapy is freely available to all’. The viewer is encouraged to consider the exhibition as an immersive mise en scène in which Johnson’s works become the soft furnishings and wall adornments of a fictive therapist’s office. In reality ‘Shelter’ falls far short of embodying this idea. We are asked to consider Daybed (1-4), 2012 – four zebra-skin beds placed on top of Persian rugs that run up the centre of SLG’s main space – as both a collection of therapist’s couches, and day beds in which a post-colonial African leader might take a nap. This incompatible double identity exposes the two central failings of ‘Shelter’: that beyond the garbled press release it is a display of decorative art, and that Johnson’s engagement with a discourse of identity and racial politics seems more market friendly stylistic choice than political gesture. Still, despite Marcel Duchamp’s grumblings, there’s nothing wrong with retinal art and Daybed is a visually compelling piece. In fact all the works in ‘Shelter’ – especially the series in which wall-based oak flooring is covered with dense layers of black soap and wax – possess a material richness that overrides the need for anecdotal alibis. The attempt to steer interpretation and engagement towards a predetermined hermeneutic just gets in the way of seeing and judging the works for what they are: attractive well made objects that make a fairly interesting use of idiosyncratic materials.

The second conceptual obstruction to a phenomenal or aesthetic appreciation of work in ‘Shelter’ is Johnson’s preoccupation with cultural identity. Like other artists that Studio Museum of Harlem director Thelma Golden categorises as ‘post-black’ (Kehinde Wiley for example), Johnson’s is a surprisingly narrow and conventional notion of blackness: legitimate, but reductive. In a similar vein to the film director Spike Lee, Johnson draws on an established set of media references, representing an outmoded, middle-class, African American essentialism: in House Arrest, 2012, a wall-mounted assemblage of red-oak flooring, the familiar gun sight insignia of agit-prop hip-hop group Public Enemy is branded repeatedly across its surface; in The End of Anger, 2012, a mirror-tiled shelf unit, splattered with black soap and viscid black wax, features a copy of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1962 12-inch ‘Three Blind Mice’. Again they are both visually compelling pieces, but the hip-hop and jazz references are almost stereotypically predictable. Does the African American experience always have to be reduced to a nostalgic mining of what was on the turntable back in the day? To be fair it is unclear what Johnson’s position is on all this. In the past he has spoken critically about the moment when, as a youth, he returned home to find all the hallmarks of domestic afrocentrism (dashikis and the like) had vanished, along with a certain ‘conscious’ way of being. You would think this might lead to regarding objects as perfidious and transient things, not emblematic and enduring signifiers of cultural identity. Perhaps ‘Shelter’s’ engagement with these worn out cultural tropes is an ironic, postmodern commentary on identity as affectation in post-black art? Who knows? Johnson’s voice is far too ambiguous to tell; something a sure curatorial hand should have directed either way.

The End of Anger takes its title from a 2011 book written by the African American journalist Ellis Cose. The text, which is also stacked on one of the work’s mirrored shelves, speaks of a contemporary moment in which black rage has diminished in terms of the US’s legacy of slavery, and white guilt is dissipating. One wonders what Johnson’s take on this is, and why he includes the text here. Race and racism are still live issues, it is just that the grounds on which battles are waged have now moved into vague and indistinct territories; places where the existence of prejudice is questioned by the very individuals and institutions which display discriminatory behaviours and racist tendencies. For instance, what about the notion that black artists are still being pushed, by collectors and institutions, towards a commercially viable preoccupation with race? As an artist who happens to be black it is absolutely not Johnson’s duty to tackle these issues, but the fact that he has a foot in both camps needs to be addressed. The fault here is again a curatorial one. ‘Shelter’ is an exhibition unsure of what it wants to say, but uncomfortable with the notion that it doesn’t have to say a thing. It is a curator’s job to dig through all this and guide the artist towards a crystallisation of voice, vision and intention ready for public display – especially in an introductory solo show.

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