By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
The first piece in Rashid Johnson’s exhibition is alive. In a way, all the pieces are thriving, because the art that fills the space within the 10,000- square foot room is part of an ongoing narrative. From now until September 17, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) will be displaying 14 pieces from Johnson’s traveling exhibit or rather story, Hail We Now Sing Joy. The narrative is both personal and introspective as Johnson explores themes of anxiety, escape, and identity. Johnson, a Chicago native, is the youngest artist ever to have a single person exhibition at the museum. Now, a New Yorker with a studio in Brooklyn, his introduction to MAM occurred in 2013 when his piece The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club was displayed as a part of the 30 Americans exhibition.
Four years later, he was temporarily returned to MAM, and according to Margaret Andera, the contemporary art curator, his exhibition complements the museum’s current works. He is simultaneously a minimalist, a conceptualist, an abstractionist and an art historian. “He moves the conversation forward,” Andera explained.
Through the glass doors, the beginning of the story titled Antoine’s Organ named in honor of musician Antoine Baldwin is visible. The canvas is a steel grid filled with roughly 300 plants, shea butter sculptures, books and a hidden piano, to name a few of the items.
Every piece within the work is deliberate and laden with personal references that double as symbols for others. The Persian rugs are a reference to his mother-in-law, while the shea butter mounds symbolize a material that has been a part of Johnson’s own life and on a larger scale black culture.
Additionally, the materials displayed among the confines of the solid grid would be considered “found objects” in the artist community Johnson prefers to label them “searched out objects.” The books like The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats influenced Johnson and examples of objects Johnson searched out.
The next chapter, per Johnson’s narrative is Escape Collage. MAM’s version contains three collages, weighing 500 lbs. per section.
Andera cites it as Johnson’s most colorful works to date. Tiles make up the background of each of the monumental collages, and are as much a part of the art, as the foreground elements.
On top of the tiles are images of palm trees, a reference to Johnson’s belief that making it to a place with palm trees is the ultimate form of escape, and perhaps success. Black soap mixed with wax runs down the canvas and intermingles with the graffiti marks.
Although the piece is not pristine, it is personal and like the other ones, it tells a personal story.
“Rashid Johnson makes his personal experience his art,” Andera said.
From Escape Collage, the viewer enters Anxious Audience, a collection of six white tiled canvases depicting rows of anxious faces constructed of black soap and wax.
The work addresses Johnson’s anxiety and was originally a collection of individual portraits collectively known as Anxious Men.
According to Andera, the pieces are as much about what is there as what isn’t there, as not all the rows are filled. Furthermore, the creation of each face comes about through a process of addition and subtraction.
The work calls the viewer, preferably standing in the middle of the room, to question their role within the piece and who is the true audience: the faces or the witness’s own eyes. Johnson’s narrative concludes with Falling Man.
On three of the four walls, are canvases made up of oak wood flooring, glass, cracked mirrors and tiles. A central figure hangs upside down in the center of each geometric piece. As the audience gazes upon the men, their own shattered reflection looks back at them.
In the center of the room, on a large wooden table branded with designs are pieces of shea butter, perhaps a remedy for the figures cracked skin.
Hail Now We Sing Joy, allows people to be a visitor, an audience member and witness, as they gaze upon Johnson’s history. Despite the fact that there is no singular answer or interpretation of the collection, viewers leave with an introspection of their own narratives within the historical fabric of the world.