|Education||Columbia College Chicago|
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
|Known for||Painting, Photography, Film and Sculpture|
Rashid Johnson (born 1977) is an American artist who produces conceptual post-black art. Johnson first received critical attention when examples of his work were included in the exhibition "Freestyle," curated by Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. He studied at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his work has been exhibited around the world.
In addition to photography, Johnson makes audio installations, video, and sculpture. Johnson is known for both his unusual artistic productions and for his process of combining various aspects of science with black history.
Johnson was born in Illinois to an academic and scholar mother, Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim, and a Vietnam-war veteran father, Jimmy Johnson, who was an artist but worked in electronics. His parents divorced when he was 2 years old and his mother remarried a man of Nigerian descent. Johnson has stated that growing up his family was based in afrocentrism and that his family celebrated Kwanzaa.
Johnson was raised in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois and Evanston, Illinois, a suburb. A photography major, he earned a 2000 Bachelor of Fine Arts from Columbia College Chicago and a 2005 Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of his mentors was Gregg Bordowitz.
Johnson followed a generation of black artists who focused on the "black experience" and grew up in a generation that was influenced by hip hop and Black Entertainment Television. Because of his generation's high exposure to black culture within pop culture, his contemporary audiences have a greater understanding of the "black experience," which has enabled him to achieve a deeper race and identity interaction.
His work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, DC; the Institute of Contemporary Photography, New York; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
As a college junior, he opened his first show at the Schneider Gallery. By 2000, he had earned a reputation for his unique photo-printing process and political content. The Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in 2001 is credited with launching Johnson's career. The curator of the show, Thelma Golden, is credited with coining the term "post-black art" in relation to that exhibit, although some suggest the term is attributable to the 1995 book The End of Blackness by Debra Dickerson, who is a favorite of Johnson's. The term post-black now refers to art in which race and racism are prominent, but where the importance of the interaction of the two is diminished.
Johnson's most controversial exhibition was entitled Chickenbones and Watermelon Seeds: The African American Experience as Abstract Art. The subject matter was a series of stereotypical African-American food culture items such as watermelon seeds, black-eyed peas, chicken bones, and cotton seeds placed directly onto photographic paper and exposed to light using an iron-reactive process.
In 2002, he exhibited at the Sunrise Museum in Charleston, West Virginia. The exhibit, entitled Manumission Papers, was named for the papers that freed slaves were required to keep to prove their freedom. The exhibition was described as being as much a cultural commentary as an imagery display, and it related to the previous "Chickenbones" exhibit. He geometrically arranged abstractions of feet, hands, and elbows in shapes such as cubes, church windows and ships. This was a considered as study in racial identity because the body parts were not identifiable. Also in 2002, presenting his photographic work using chicken bones, Johnson exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, as part of the UBS 12 x 12: New Artists, New Work series.
In 2002 he exhibited his homeless men in the Diggs Gallery of Winston-Salem State University. The exhibit was entitled Seeing in the Dark and used partially illuminated subjects against deep black backgrounds. He also exhibited his homeless men work, including George (1999), in Atlanta, Georgia as part of the National Black Arts Festival at City Gallery East in July and August 2002. George was part of the Corcoran Gallery of Art November 2004 – January 2005 Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art, Selections From the Collection of Julia J. Norrell exhibition. George and the Common Ground exhibition appeared in several other places including the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2006.
He took part in the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs artist Open Studio Program rotation in the Chicago Landmark/National Register of Historic Places Page Brothers Building during the summer of 2003 with a three-week exhibition. He explored the "historical and contemporary nature of photography". At that time, he was represented by George N'Namdi, who owned G.R. N'Namdi, the oldest African-American-owned, exhibiting commercial gallery in the country.
In conjunction with the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Rashid Johnson exhibited The Evolution of the Negro Political Costume in December 2004. He presented replicas of three outfits worn by African-American politicians. He included a late 1960s dashiki worn by Jesse Jackson, a 1980s running suit worn by Al Sharpton in the '80s and a business suit worn by then United States Senator-elect Barack Obama. The presentation, which invited inspection, was as likely to evoke humorous response to the Jackson dashika as well as critical commentary about the presentation of political attire.
Johnson explored the theme of escapism at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art in a show entitled The Production of Escapism: A Solo Project by Rashid Johnson. He addressed distraction and relief from reality through art and fantasy. Johnson used photos, video and site-specific installation to study escapist tendencies through often with a sense of humor that bordered on the absurd.
During the summer of 2005, he took part in a Chicago Cultural Center artist exchange program exhibition featuring five emerging Chicago contemporary artists and five from Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Half of the ten were women (four from Taiwan). As part of the Crossings exhibition almost all artists had their first chance to exhibit in the country of the others. In this forum, Chicago Tribune art critic Alan G. Artner said Johnson's audio selection imposed his artistry on all the other exhibits since he chose a rap song combined with a blunt video. Artner became a Johnson detractor in 2005 when Johnson had this and another simultaneous exhibit appearing in Chicago. He described Johnson's exploration of the politics of race as "sloganeering or cute self-advertising" in his two-dimensional works, and his apolytical three-dimensional installations as "glib and superficial" representations. He classified Johnson's work as more suitable for the audience seeking nothing more than American pop culture. Artner also derided Johnson's short video contribution to the Art Institute of Chicago's Fool's Paradise exhibition as a "conflation of gospel singing with beat boxing ... that says nothing worth saying about race." Other Chicago critics describe Johnson's subsequent work as relatively hip.
The following year, after obtaining his Master's degree, he moved to the Lower East Side in New York City, where he taught at the Pratt Institute. Although he is generally referred to as a photographer and sometimes referred to as a sculptor, in certain contexts, he has been referred to as an artist-magician.
In an ensemble 2006 showing entitled Scarecrow, Johnson exhibited a life-sized photographic nude self-portrait that was supposed to be menacing and abrasive, but that was perceived as interesting and amusing. His Summer 2007 "Stay Black and Die" work in The Color Line exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery left one art critic from The New York Times wondering whether he was viewing a warning or exhortation. However, at the same time he participated in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's For Love of the Game: Race and Sport in America exhibition that seemed to clearly address manners in which questions about race have been asked and answered on American sports fields of play.
As a post-black artist, his mixed-media work, such as his Spring 2008 exhibition The Dead Lecturer, plays on race while diminishing its significance by playing with contradictions, coded references and allusions (E.g., The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett), right). The exhibit was described as "a fictional secret society of African-American intellectuals, a cross between Mensa and the Masons" that was a challenge to either condemn or endorse.
Rise to prominence
In November 2011, he was named as one of six finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize. In April 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, presented Johnson's first major museum solo exhibition. MCA Pamela Alper Associate Curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm curated the exhibition in close collaboration with the artist. The exhibition was a survey of the previous ten years of the artist's work. Additionally, a new MCA commission was to be shown for the first time.
Throughout that latter 2010's, Johnson addressed the idea of mental health in multiple series of works, namely Anxious Men and Anxious Audiences and Broken Men.
Techniques and processes
Johnson uses "alchemy, divination, astronomy, and other sciences that combine the natural and spiritual worlds" to augment black history. According to a Columbia College Chicago publication, Johnson works in a variety of media with physical and visual materials that have independent artistic significance and symbolism but that are augmented by their connections to black history. According to the culture publication Flavorpill, he challenges his viewers with photography and sculpture that present the creation and dissemination of norms and expectations. However, the Chicago Tribune describes the productions resulting from his processes as lacking complexity or depth. Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer Regina Hackett described Johnson as an artist who avoids the struggles of black people and explores their strengths, while inserting himself as subject in his "aesthetic aspirations" through a variety of forums.
Johnson has garnered national attention for both his unusual subject matter and for his process. In addition to portrait photography, Johnson is known for his use of a 19th-century process that uses Van Dyke brown, a transparent organic pigment, and exposure to sunlight. He achieves a painterly feel with his prints with the application of pigment using broad brush strokes. He uses a 8-by-10-inch (20 by 25 cm) Deardorff, which forces him to interact with his subjects.
His use of shea butter and tiles in his, respective, sculptural and mosaic work have significant meaning to Johnson. The former being a "signifier of African identity," whereas the latter have a more personal connection for him. As a student, a Russian and Turkish Bathouse became a place of refuge, with him viewing the white tiles as a canvas. He would even take his college assigned-reading in there with him.
- 2002: "12x12: New Artist/New Work," Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL
- 2003: "The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro," moniquemeloche, Chicago, IL
- 2005: "Stay Black and Die," moniquemeloche, Chicago, IL
- 2005: "The Production of Escapism," Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, Indianapolis, IN
- 2008: "Sharpening My Oyster Knife," Kunstmuseum Magdeberg, Germany
- 2008: "The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center," moniquemeloche, Chicago, IL
- 2009: "Other Aspects," David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles 
- 2009: "The Dead Lecturer: Laboratory, Dojo, and Performance Space," Power House Memphis, Memphis, TN
- 2009: "Smoke and Mirrors," Sculpture Centre, Long Island City, NY
- 2012: "A Message to Our Folks," Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL
- 2012: "Rumble," Hauser & Wirth, New York, NY
- 2013: "New Growth," Ballroom Marfa, TX
- 2014: "Remembering D.B. Cooper," moniquemeloche, Chicago, IL
- 2015: "Anxious Men" at tbe Drawing Center in New York City.
- 2015: "Smile," Hauser & Wirth (South Gallery), London (January 28 – March 7, 2015)
- 2017: "Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy," Kemper Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
- 2020: "Untitled Anxious Red Drawings" at Hauser & Wirth online (in part to benefit the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization)
- 2000: "A Decade of Acquisitions," Detroit MI
- 2001: "Freestyle," Studio Museum in Harlem, New York NY
- 2004: "Inside Out: Portrait Photographs from the Permanent Collection," New York NY
- 2005: "International Biennale of Contemporary Art 2005," Prague, Czech Republic
- 2006: "A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: colors," Magdeburg, Germany
- 2008: "30 Americans," Rubell Family Collection, Miami FL
- 2009: "Beg, Borrow and Steal" Rubell Family Collection, Miami FL
- 2010: "Selected Works from the MCA Foundation; Focus on UBS 12x12," Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago IL
- 2010: "From Then to Now: Masterworks of African American Art," MOCA, Cleveland OH
- 2011: "ILLUMInations" 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy
- 2011: "American Exuberance," Rubell Family Collection, Miami FL
- 2012: David C. Driskell Prize
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