Skip to main content

Rashid Johnson, "Message to Our Folks," at the MCA, Chicago


The retrospective of work by Rashid Johnson is the first museum show in the USA devoted to this Chicago-born, NYC-based artist. I haven't talked about it before now, or in any other outlet, because it was heavily covered in the press, and frankly the reviews I read didn't make me that eager to see it. I only happened to walk in and take a look when I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago a few weeks ago to review something else for Hyperallergic. What I saw was very different from what I had imagined, so I'm taking the opportunity here to respond to it.




There is a lot of complex symbology involved in the construction of the sculptural pieces, drawn from physics, astronomy, music, and more esoteric branches of knowledge. I'm sure Johnson is sincere in his interest in that stuff, but as is often the case when artists wax philosophical about the content of their work, I think the pieces function on a much more straightforward level than that. With their assimilation of images from black popular culture, daily life, and his own family life, it seems to me that Johnson creates art that is a sort of working out on a grand scale of his own identity.
The materials are drawn from memories of his own family home -- Al Green albums, mirrors, plants and books, brass ornaments, zebra striped fabrics, shea butter, and soap -- and they come together in odd and unexpected ways: sculptural forms that look like strange accumulations of other sculptures, paintings that are massively clogged with thick pigment, and that glow despite their overall darkness. The paintings, in particular, are extraordinarily beautiful, with surfaces so textured that you have to restrain yourself from running your hand over them to see how they feel on your skin.




The title of the show comes from an old record by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a jazz outfit from the 1960s. Even without knowing all the references, though, Johnson's art draws you in to his dense dialogue with black American history, via the patient rearrangment of the enlarged symbols and memories of his own individual personality.

At the MCA Chicago until August 5th, 2012.

Comments

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

My Work Acquired by Important Collection

When so much of making work as an artist involves slogging away in a room with no idea if it's ever going to be seen by the world outside, it's satisfying when a little success comes your way. I am very proud that two of my handmade books were acquired recently by the Joan Flasch Artist's Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. This collection is one of the most renowned collections of books made by artists in the United States, so it's a huge honour to be included.

Here is one of the pieces, an interleaved slit accordion fold of two etchings:


And here is the other, a heavily collaged accordion book bound together by sisal:


Each piece is now being catalogued and digitized, and at some point in the future they will be on display at the library, possibly in the company of books by artists such as Joseph Beuys:

And Christo:


And Richard Tuttle:

I have paintings in my studio that are six feet square, yet it's these two small books that have given m…

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.


A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…