Hip hop spiritualist, funky afronaut, Zen master of performance yoga, shelving shaman: Rashid Johnson is all those things, and his infinitely layered work confounds easy understanding just as it proves devastatingly attractive.
Interview by Francesca Gavin
Standing in front of Rashid Johnson work can be an awe-inspiring experience. At times it feels as if his objects embody the entire history of art, ritual and worship – true contemporary reinventions of the fetish. These altar pieces, which he often refers to as shelves, manage to fuse the cultural dissection of Sherrie Levine, the textured materiality of Joseph Beuys, the mysterious iconography of African art history and the political accessibility of Public Enemy all at the same time.
Born in 1977 in Chicago and based in New York, Johnson first garnered attention in 2001, a year after he graduated, with a show curated by Thelma Golden at The Studio Museum in Harlem. His work seemed to pioneer a generation Golden described as “post-black”. Blackness is something central in his work – whether that ranges from black textured paint to the blackened stains of branded wood to cleaning black bathroom tiles. Yes, there are also fascinating references to black culture – from bowls of shea butter to Al Green record covers to exhibition titles referencing the boxing promoter Don King. Yet there is so much more going on in his films, photography and sculptural work than just Afro-Americana. Ideas around materiality, performance, history, music, philosophy, belief, autobiography, masculinity and the language of art itself. What is so exciting about Johnson’s work is how it manages to convey all that in an incredibly accessible way – using references and imagery that engage people far beyond the confines of the critical art world.
In person Johnson is laid-back and refreshing, and he works from a studio in an old converted garage in Bushwick, in the wilder ends of Brooklyn. Sun Ra and Coltrane records pile up in boxes amongst branded pieces of wood that make the space feel like a blacksmith’s workshop. Here his assistants create the blank slates and domestic structures that the artist transforms by hand. Johnson is very engaged with his work and the result is a body of work that feels heavyweight and broad at the same time.
It should be no surprise that over the past 12 months, Johnson’s work has attracted serious attention. A well-represented corner of the Arsenale at last year’s Venice Biennale was followed by a nomination for the Guggenheim’s 2012 Hugo Boss Prize (following in the footsteps of people like Christoph Buchel and Anri Sala). It’s also Johnson’s year of big solo shows – an impressive exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in New York in January, a one-man show of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in April (later touring to Miami and Atlanta) and an upcoming takeover of South London Gallery coinciding with Frieze.
Contemporary art’s own radical afronaut, Rashid Johnson is riding the medium to somewhere it’s never been before. Here, he opens up to Sleek on his relationship with materials, optimism and those shelves.
Sleek: You originally began studying photography. How has that influenced what you’re creating now?
Rashid Johnson: I think the glue to all is in a strange way an interest in how light hits the surface. A lot of my earlier photographs are Nineteenth Century process photographs. I think this interest in process and material is the thing that holds it all together. That sense of the wonder that comes from learning how to apply a different material to a surface.
Sleek: How does history inform what you do?
RJ: In a lot of ways, I thought about applying history as a tool and as a material and really showing little fear of manipulating it. I’m not positive there’s ever a really distinct stance taken because I don’t think the work really functions as [something] didactic. It’s more aware of a historical language that I close in and out of – taking historical figures, recontextualising them and placing them in a conversation with me, which is probably enormously ego-driven. It’s part of this game – to produce a one-to-one relationship between myself and historical figures.
Sleek: You’ve referenced specific figures in the record cover, books and materials in your works. What draws you to those individuals?
RJ: My mother being a historian and looking and digging through her library and considering the things she found to be significant. When your mother’s a historian you realise at a young age the value that your caretaker – the person most important in your life as a young person – places on things. These histories, and in my case American history as well as African history, politics, philosophy et cetera, was the value tool in my home. Honestly, it’s not so much something I just came to on my own as much as something that was the way I was raised.