Art and Culture in Chicago

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Cosmic Slop

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White people love Rashid Johnson.

 They love him because he’s a black artist who makes art about identity politics without assuming the role of a victim or pointing fingers. His art also makes white people feel like they understand black people, which delights them, but it is a dubious understanding because his work is intentionally ambiguous. It is anything but didactic, and it is refreshing. And it is refreshing, but not satisfying.

Johnson has been embraced by the art world not only because white people love him and because he threw himself into it at a young age, with none of the self-consciousness that comes with education. He was exhibiting regularly during his undergraduate education at Columbia College and his work was in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection before he started Graduate school at SAIC.


On the opening night in September in the West Loop gallery compound, amongst the hoards of hipsters, academics, and collectors, there seemed to be a general sentiment that the installation at Monique Meloche was the star of the show.

The installation, titled “The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center”, transformed the gallery into a mystical, smoking lounge-like space. The art in it mixed black history with references to alchemy, divination, and astronomy, freely combining the natural and spiritual worlds.

The installation was a little underwhelming. The photographs were awesome, and the paintings were nice, but the assemblages seemed slightly forced although they smelled great. The palms, in their store-bought black plastic pots seemed like an afterthought. Surely Johnson would have a good explanation for installing things exactly as he did, but no explanation should be needed.

Perhaps the most striking piece in the show was a jarringly large lambda print titled, “Self-portrait as the black Jimmy Connors in the finals of the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Summer Tennis Tournament.” It showcases the artist in full tennis regalia, surrounded by foliage and being obliterated out of recognition by a jungle-like mist. The knife-twisting irony of a black man as a white prepster is pervasive in Johnson’s work. His technique of playing dress up and photographing himself is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman, but in a 21st century, tongue-in-cheek kind of way. A Newcity review by Jaime Calder aptly observes: “The Gold Coast-meets-South Side concept is laid on thick.”

His contemporary way of addressing identity is what sets him apart from those who came before. In a critical context, his work is widely regarded as being part of the “post-black” movement.

Most definitions of “post-black” that you will find on the Internet are paradoxical and utterly unsatisfying. The best one is in a blog called “hellatuff.” In it, the author explains: “The original objective of Post Black labeling was to abandon and progress beyond the limitations of pigeon-holing an artist’s work with a racial identity. Post Black better suits the linguistic and artistic needs of the post-Civil Rights generation as a means to express their identity within black history and American Art. Post Black art embraces the works and idealism of black artists across a broad spectrum of personal history, while their common denominator of African decent unifies them. While many artists and critics embrace the liberal sentiment of the Post Black movement, others denounce Post Black as a regressive social construct that diminishes the progress of those involved in the Black Arts Movement.”

In the New York Times last year, Kori Newkirk, one of the quintessential “post-black” artists wrote, “We’re all making work that can be difficult sometimes, with an incredible investigation into materials and a strong basis in conceptual art. I would say we’re all making work that doesn’t hit people over the head with the race conversation anymore. It’s a juicy conceptualism— a ghetto-fabulous conceptualism — based on reality and the intricacies of daily life.” It seems as though Johnson would like to remain a little mysterious.  No webpage or artist’s statement can be found online; the closest is a faux personal add he wrote for an art show a few years ago. Clever and telling, it reads as follows: “young artist seeks audience to enjoy poly-conscious attempts at post-medium condition production. Must enjoy race mongering, disparate disconnected thoughts and sunsets (really). Familiarity with the works of Sun Ra, Joseph Beuys, Rosalind Krauss, Richard Pryor, Hans Haacke, Carl Andre and interest in spelunking the death of identity a plus. I’m looking for an audience with a good attention span that is willing to stay with me thorough the good and the bad. I enjoy creating videos, producing sculptures, and making photographs. My interests are costuming, Sam Greenlee novels, Godard films and masturbation. Ability to hold a conversation using only rap lyrics, and a sense of humor a must.”


Written by Kelly Reaves

October 20, 2008 at 6:51 am

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