Hauser & Wirth is delighted to open its second exhibition in St. Moritz with a presentation of new works by Rashid Johnson. Opening on 17 February 2019, the exhibition unfolds across both floors of the gallery and features paintings, sculptures, and drawings by this renowned contemporary American artist.
Born in Chicago in 1977, Johnson has continually explored the relationships between biographic and collective narratives through themes such as art history, literature, philosophy, materiality, and critical history. His multidisciplinary practice spans sculpture, painting, drawing, filmmaking, and installation, and incorporates a diverse range of materials and objects, significant in their engagement with African-American and other African diasporic communities. The series in this exhibition address the artist’s recurring themes of anxiety and escapism, which evolve from and speak to the current political and social turmoil faced in the US and around the globe.
Presented on the ground floor of the gallery is a new series of works by Johnson entitled Broken Men, which the artist debuted last year. This series comprises a collection of sculptural paintings in which the canvas is replaced by a mosaic of fractured ceramic and mirrored tiles. Within these bustling compositions of cracked colour and line, rudimentary renderings of human figures come to the forefront. These characters are depicted with jaunted rectangular heads, hollow, stretched-out eyes, and mouths agape with jagged teeth. The figures are composed predominantly of black tile, while flashes and streaks of colour play across the works’ surface, a departure from the monochromatic or more colour-averse palettes found in earlier series. The wild and agitated faces echo Johnson’s widely-exhibited series of Anxious Men (2015 — 2017), wherein the artist presented anonymous, abstracted faces rendered in black wax on a grid of white tiles. Originally imagined as self-portraits, Johnson has described this previous series as a response to the political uncertainty during the run up to the US presidential election and the worrying rise of global nationalism.
In this new series, the artist pushes the anxiety of these figures, both metaphorically and physically, to breaking point. Grouped together or alone, these ‘broken men’ speak to collective and individual identities in the midst of shifting social realities: as injustices and racial conflicts in the US continue to flare, these works become more neurotic and dystopian than their anxious counterparts. Even the progressive use of smashed tile, once employed in a strict grid formation by Johnson, creates a frantic atmosphere and becomes rich with symbolism. This pointed use of materials is distinct within Johnson’s practice. In these works, the artist also uses a combination of oil stick, black soap, and wax, which is dripped onto the surface in velvety swatches. Black soap, made from the ash of plants and barks and mixed with fat from the shea nut, is highly valued for its medicinal benefits in West Africa and is regularly found in beauty products worldwide. Johnson often explores the ways in which such objects have been used by African-Americans to connect with their diaspora.
In addition, a new series of ceramic busts bring these anxious and broken men into a three-dimensional realm. Departing from Johnson’s historic use of shea butter to create these busts, these ceramic versions reimagine this form of portraiture seen repeatedly in Western art history. Here, the identities of these characters are disfigured: some are faceless, others have nervous, grimacing expressions which have been scratched and pinched across the surface. Johnson also uses these busts as habitats for plants, transforming their function from sculptures to living environments, amplified by their organic and earthy colour scheme.
Taking over the first floor of the gallery are Johnson’s Untitled Escape Collages. In these works, the artist introduces vivid colour through custom-made wallpaper, which features stock images of indigenous masks, tropical beaches and cosmic scenery — a nod to Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist philosophy which looked to escapism in defiance of oppression. The wallpaper is layered and collaged on board, and inlays of ceramic tile, cracked mirror, and branded wood flooring dot the surface. In past works, Johnson has often linked the idea of layering and masking to escapism as a distancing of the self. These collaged surfaces are then covered in marks and gestures by the artist with spray paint and his hallmark mixture of melted black oil-stick, soap, and wax, imparting these large-scale, abstract works with a forceful energy. This kaleidoscopic wallpaper, with its shamanistic visual language and paradisal imagery, evokes dreams of a far-away land, at once mysterious and aspirational, into which these paintings offer the viewer a peek, but no easy access.