The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club never existed, but for his 2008 solo debut at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, Rashid Johnson conjured the fictional secret society through smoky portrait photographs of distinguished-looking men wearing suits and ties. In the process, Johnson managed to personify the qualities of his own artwork: ambiguous and hard to read, yet whimsically redolent of African American history. Already a finalist for the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize, Johnson is embarking on the biggest year of his career thus far, with solo shows opening at Hauser & Wirth in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, David Kordansky in LA, and South London Gallery during the Frieze Art Fair.
At Hauser & Wirth, Johnson invokes one of the former owners of the gallery’s Upper East Side townhouse, boxing promoter Don King. The title Rumble refers to the historic 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, promoted by King and fought in the former Zaire between world heavyweight champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Rumble’s complex, geometric arrangement of mirrored tiles is fractured, its surface splattered with black soap, wax, and paint. For Johnson, the ’70s represent rumblings of transition, a moment between black identity epitomized by everyone “wearing dashikis and looking for their African roots” and black identity as “listening to hip-hop and watching shows on the Black Entertainment Network.”
The Cosmic Slop series, carved and slashed into layers of black soap and wax, is named for a 1973 Funkadelic track from the album of the same title. Johnson consistently uses albums as cultural references points, propping up LPs on shelves attached to several mirrored tile pieces, along with objects like a bar of black soap, a CB Radio, and shea butter. Not all of these are simple cultural touchstones—Johnson draws many from his personal history (the CB Radio refers to his father’s electronics company), confounding expectations for easily identifiable symbols of black culture. Through these ambiguous personal references, Johnson avoids relying too heavily on the kitschy stock imagery of dashikis and hip-hop.
On one shelf, neighboring a CB Radio, Johnson props up a 1957 Charles Mingus album, The Clown. In the album’s liner notes, Mingus writes, “My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and persecution, and how unfair is it. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling, ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me!’” The shelves, or shrines, have a reverent and also distancing attitude towards these artifacts. Johnson is hearing the history and prejudice and persecution, but he’s also thinking about what might come after. How else can we understand a video called The New Black Yoga?