Sunday, 16 December 2012


I had the opportunity recently to see the work of Rashid Johnson, having first seen his work in 30 American’s a group show curated by private collectors the Rubell family. If you’re interested in the work of African American artists definitely follow the hyper link. It was an ambitious show, upbeat - lots of sparkle, humour and irony. It was one of them shows I kicked myself for missing, even though it was in Florida? I’d seen it during my early drawing days… Johnson’s sloppy waxy black canvases, I didn’t know if I’d liked them but they were resonating with some things happening in the studio at the time. There was quite a gap however between that encounter and seeing the show in London. It can be dangerous waiting too long in anticipation… after a secondhand view on the internet you wonder whether the work will really stand up in the flesh  - and sometimes it don’t. So after a culture show slot (that I missed) a Time out review and several conversations I found myself at the South London Gallery with a friend to see it. Johnson methods are multidisciplinary, photography, painting and video it all ties together in the gallery with a strong sculptural sensibility.  It had a cool formalism, which combined an abstract expressionist heroism with Africana mysticism. The show was really intelligent, witty, beautifully made and presented a more contemplative, Post-modern Black - perhaps of the more vulnerable kind…

I loved his shelf pieces displaying a Victorian book fetish, more slop and other found objects.   On the walls as well as the aforementioned canvases, smoky photos, wooden panels branded, scored and gauged within an inch of their life. I looked around the show wondering if this was new like the time out review claimed. I wasn’t sure… The middle of the show had a grand nod to minimalism, four day beds in the sequence of rotation and continued to nod vigorously to cannons of American art history and Freud as a modern idea of psychology. Using medicinal substances like shea butter and black soap, the notion of ‘healing’ was ever present - got me thinking about that perpetual debate about the health of the Black psyche. In this framing Freud represents something both positive and negative - our growing understanding of the mind, our desire to treat it and the appropriation of cultural objects to facilitate and evidence Euro centric knowledge structures. In fact looking at those upturned beds, I wondered for moment whether I was looking at the fresh trophies of a safari hunt.

So what made it a new black as Time out claimed? Well maybe a not so widely known back story of an educated, middle class ‘brother’ musing on the legacy of 70’s American Africana for one. In this way it becomes an historical episode in American history and in some respects the work does look like it belongs to another time. There was also a kind of personal thread to this history, which gave him ownership and others a way in to the subject. All I know is that in many respects the show wasn’t new, but he managed to disarm the knees that usually jerk under fear of accusation and attack. Perhaps this is more about timing, now firmly in the 21st century maybe people have enough distance and an open mind to read the other nuances that has always been present in this kind of work.

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