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.