“There's a generation of black artists before me who made work specifically about the black experience. But I think for my generation, having grown up in the age of hip-hop and Black Entertainment Television, there's less of a need to define the black experience so aggressively to a white audience. I think it gives us a different type of opportunity to have a more complex conversation around race and identity. It’s not a weapon for me, it’s more of an interest.” - Rashid Johnson
Recognized as a preeminent figure of his generation, the African American artist Rashid Johnson (b. 1977) produces conceptual post-black art that investigates themes of personal identity, shared cultures, race, class, and other aspects of contemporary American society. In his work, Johnson utilizes a variety of mediums, including but not limited to photography, painting, sculpture, video, and sound installation. He cultivates a cross-disciplinary vocabulary and employs unconventional materials to create visually and conceptually complex works of art that resonate with both localized and globalized audiences.
Born and raised in Chicago, Johnson cites Afrocentrism as an integral part of his upbringing. With multiculturalism playing an important role in Johnson’s young life, it ultimately informed his approach to artmaking. Johnson majored in photography at Columbia College Chicago, graduating with his BA in 2000, and received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute Chicago in 2005. While at the SAIC, under the guidance of artist Gregg Bordowitz, Johnson expanded his knowledge of critical theory and applied it to film and new media studies. Bordowitz introduced Johnson to semiotics, structuralism, and deconstruction, investigations which propelled Johnson to think more critically about his artistic practice, both conceptually and aesthetically.
In 2001, three of Johnson’s black and white portraits of homeless African Americans in Chicago were included in the influential Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem curated by Thelma Golden. Johnson’s visceral photographs in this seminal show established him as a leading figure in conceptual post-black art.
After graduating from college, Johnson moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and taught at the Pratt Institute. He began creating a diverse body of work ranging from wall-based sculptures that engage with the history of painting to monumental assemblages of plants, books, videos on monitors, wood, and steel, among other materials. Johnson’s wall-based “paintings” comprised of grid-like, hand-cut mirrors with black soap and shea butter, are culturally located within narratives of African diaspora. While there are direct connections to Johnson’s African American heritage with the historical and personal context of these materials, the aesthetic considerations of these works provide a universal space for viewers to reflect on the human condition. Viewers negotiate their sense of self while staring into their reflection, which is obscured by an eclectic, rich textural surface.
Anxiety and escapism became reoccurring themes in Johnson’s art in the second decade of the 21st century. With the unnerving contemporary political climate, especially in the aftermath of controversial presidential elections, mass shootings, and police brutality towards Black people, Johnson began series of portraits called Anxious Men (2015) and Anxious Audience (2018). In the fall of 2015, Johnson presented a group of single figures rendered in black soap and wax on tile at the Drawing Center in New York. Crafting palpable, anxious facial expressions by digging into the waxy black surface, Anxious Men signals the first time the artist worked in figuration outside of his work in photography and film. In 2018, Johnson multiplied these anxious figures and developed his Anxious Audience series. In his recent Body of Men works, Johnson similarly focuses on anxiety and escapism, creating mosaics of broken glass and ceramic tiles, overlayed with oil, black soap, wax, oak wood flooring, and a range of other materials. In these kaleidoscopic compositions, he reconciles his black experience with optimistic, fantastical notions of the future, rebirth, and paradise.
Johnson lives and works in New York City. His works have been shown around the world including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Museum.