Standing Broken Men (2020), a new work by Rashid Johnson, is a mixed-media tour de force with broad reach. It speaks to our contemporary existential zeitgeist while revealing fascinating and unexpected connections between distinct moments in the history of art, as well as trajectories throughout the varied course of Johnson’s career. With its searing, frenetic depiction of a human head and torso composed largely from pieces of ceramic tile but also branded wood, mirror, and paint, among other materials, it is a container of visual and sculptural contradictions, and a record of both methodical planning and free-form experimentation. Its fragmented approach to figuration is also a reminder that Johnson’s project is an expansive, constantly shifting phenomenon with roots in conceptual art, performance, literature, photography, and video.
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For more than 20 years, Johnson has been making work at the intersections between abstraction, cultural observation, self-exploration, and social critique. His investigations of race and class, for instance, often take shape in non-objective, painterly compositions that prove just as revelatory about the supposed universality of modernism; materials with real-world functionality are employed in the creation of images that foreground seemingly “pure” geometry and color; and idealized forms like the grid are used to support living interventions and performative actions that exceed pre-established structures. The Broken Men typology, which he has been developing since 2018, occupies an important position in this matrix, channeling the fraught—and potentially fertile—energy of the current moment, and shedding light on both personal and collective visions of the past.
Since the beginning of his career, Johnson has depicted the body in numerous ways, oscillating between photographic or video representation and more abstract approaches, and often blurring distinctions between them, subtly or otherwise. An early group of photographs shown in Freestyle, a 2001 group exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, was among Johnson’s first works to garner broader attention. Entitled Seeing in the Dark, the series features straight-on portraits of homeless Black men printed using various hands-on, analogue techniques that lend them added tactility.
In George (1998–99), an antiquated contact printing method known as the Van Dyke brown process results in a striking image whose impact is due in part to the irregular, brushy rectangle that frames its subject’s face and accentuates the picture’s tension between agitation and dignified calm. More than 15 years later, a related compositional device would find its way into Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Men series, a direct precursor to the Broken Men works. Stylized heads painted in black soap and wax on white tile channel raw force even as the implied symmetry of their shapes—not to mention the regularity of the gridded tile—suggests that frenzy always conjures an opposing sense of order and stability. Both Seeing in the Dark and Untitled Anxious Men are highly personal and simultaneously evocative of pervasive, even global conditions.
Furthermore, both bodies of work demonstrate how Johnson combines sociological reflection with constant research into an ever-widening range of material strategies. The flexibility with which he migrates from one kind of artmaking to another is indicative of the conceptualism that has fueled his practice since its outset. To mention another example that sheds light on Standing Broken Men, he has long been interested in how museological display creates the conditions by which the body is seen and codified in institutional settings. Garments are often shown according to a practical form of flattening—and therefore abstraction—when they are stretched, not on mannequins, but on simplified hangers or in cases.
A similar kind of flattening allows Standing Broken Men to exist as a starkly geometric exercise in texture, rhythm, and color. It also amplifies its symbolic resonance, so that the body constructed on and of its surface functions as a kind of armature, both for non-objective, gestural moves and for broader philosophical and critical reflection. The work is a series of questions rather than a series of answers. How is a body constituted, physically and socially, internally and externally? How do individual and collective bodies overlap and override one another?
Such questions are at the core of two sculptures Johnson produced in the mid-2000s. Signed Angela Davis “Civil Rights All-Stars” Throw-back Dashiki Jersey (2003) and Signed Clarence Thomas “Uncle Tom All-Stars” Judicial Robe Jersey (2006) are, as their titles imply, physically altered garments that address the legacies of two iconic, if radically different, Black Americans. Riffing off the status, fashion, and economics of signed, collectible sports jerseys, Johnson constellates issues of value and political ideology while dismantling assumptions about how history is told and made. The impact made by people like Davis and Thomas is felt in and on the individual bodies of those whom their actions and words affect. At the same time, the artworks serve as agents of caricature, mere symbols of the teams for which Black people are expected—or expect themselves—to play in the fraught, violent game of American democracy.
“It was explained to me once that creativity is best thought of as a person who is willing to connect disconnected things. Artists are not looking for the logical solution, or the most tasteful or pragmatic solution. We’re often looking for the disparate solution, the disconnected, desperate, unhealthy, unthoughtful solution that we can bring into the world, and maybe it changes how we think.”
There is a sense, then, that the jersey sculptures are about the inevitable fragmentation that comes along with any attempt to pinpoint identity. In some cases, this is a distressing and traumatic experience, but in others it is the fuel for celebratory and ecstatic acts of creation in which shards of broken things are brought together in revelatory ways. This principle is certainly at work in Standing Broken Men. Johnson has combined irregularly shaped pieces of ceramic tile with a host of other elements, including intentionally shattered pieces of mirrored tile. Throughout, larger pieces of ceramic tile made and glazed by Johnson account for one kind of gesturation, while drips of the black soap/black wax mixture that has appeared in his work for many years suffuse the composition with speed and urgency.
Rashid Johnson, We Hood, 2014, mirrored tile, spray enamel, black soap, wax, vinyl, steel, books, and shea butter, 96 1/2 x 120 1/2 x 14 1/2 inches (245.1 x 306.1 x 36.8 cm), Photo by Martin Parsekian
Mirrored-tile works from the 2010s, such as We Hood (2014), exemplify how Johnson has been productively harnessing the opposing powers of rupture and order for some time. Here, too, instances of shattering punctuate a grid that seems to be bent on throwing itself out of balance. A prominent hunk of yellow shea butter sits on one of three shelves and breaks open the work’s otherwise austere coloration, introducing a pronounced, tactile physicality in keeping with the material’s traditional use as a salve and lotion, especially by people of African descent. A record, books, and a roughly welded steel cube each bring with them their own references and associations; complete unto themselves, these objects are also pieces of a mutable worldview that can never be fully summarized or contained.
Fragmentation—particularly of the body—occurs in temporal as well as visual terms in an early video entitled United Boogie Down Baptist B-Boy Beathouse Crew (2002). Cutting footage to beats by Scott La Rock, one of the members of the pioneering hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, Johnson assembles a remix of a Baptist church service. Parishioners inspired by the Holy Ghost strut back and forth as if they are breakdancing, while the grain of the video adds its own forms of linearity and dissonance. Much like the figures in the Anxious Men and Broken Men series of wall works, the churchgoers are shown as broken vessels, possessed by overriding, uncontrollable, and likely uncomfortable forces that paradoxically make them more alive. Beathouse also provides a clue about Johnson’s interest in—and use of—sampling as both a formal operation and an aesthetic position.
Standing Broken Men is the result of a process of gathering and recontextualizing. Each small piece of material has its own specific color and shape, but also establishes links to previous phases of Johnson’s artistic evolution. The above-mentioned pieces of glazed tile, to cite one example, emerge from an ongoing practice of ceramic vessel-making.
These vessels, which each bear the title Untitled Ugly Pot, have appeared in exhibitions as standalone artworks, but have also been featured as components in large-scale installation-based sculptures like The Crisis (2019), which was recently part of The Hikers, Johnson's 2019 solo exhibition at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City. Like other works discussed here, The Crisis is, among other things, an armature for activations, “sampled” eruptions of life that emerge from a modular yellow steel frame; at Tamayo these included an opening-day performance by a jazz trumpeter, living plants, and videos by Johnson playing on small monitors that inhabit this forest of forms like beacons of light.
“Artists’ practices take time—they’re not quickly conjured. But sometimes there can be nowness in it, and there are moments where I think my work does allow you, in an honest and emotional way, to see the now.”
Throughout the many typologies he embraces—and indeed, throughout his project as a whole—Johnson deftly choreographs what would ordinarily be conflicting representations of singularity and multiplicity. His images are often indelible and concise, and attributable only to him. Looking at a given work over a period of time, however, often reveals many instances of atomization, of moments when its parts or building blocks supersede any notion of totality. The viewer is instead invited to look inward, away from the communal and into more private spaces, including those of the self. Johnson invites this experience by incorporating autobiographical material in artworks that somehow resist purely autobiographical readings. This is a form of realism: one person’s story never exists in isolation, but rather forms part of a web of narratives told by many people, at many different points in history.
Accordingly, Johnson draws from a surprising array of sources, finding inspiration in artworks and other forms of creative expression from diverse cultures and time periods. Over the centuries, the use of tile mosaic in numerous settings, including both architectural and sculptural ones, has generated a wealth of creative solutions to a basic formal problem. By using many small pieces of a material, artists and artisans can produce large, durable surfaces whose resulting physical characteristics also create stimulating visual textures. Roman mosaics, to cite one ancient example, provided a means by which story and myth could be integrated into the walls and floors of public and private buildings. In a more modern setting, Joan Miró’s sculptures and interventions prominently animate zones of transit in Barcelona, imbuing them with vibrant color and biomorphic designs that reinforce a sense of place while engaging the imagination.
Among other unlikely compositional models for the encompassing figuration of Standing Broken Men are images of the Virgin Mary made by largely anonymous artists associated with the Cuzco School in 18th century colonial Peru. The products of a complex cross-pollination of indigenous South American and European lineages, the paintings are notable for their flatness and the dense, monolithic fields of patterning that define the Virgin’s garments, which become reliquaries holding images of other people, objects, and emblems. They also therefore prompt new readings of Johnson’s many revisionist takes on reliquaries over the years, the sculptural supports for which have taken form in several materials, including not only ceramic tile and mirrored tile, but also black soap and wax and burned wood flooring.
Shelf works of this kind are, like Standing Broken Men, oblique portraits—but of what, or whom? Inevitably they invite speculation about the artist who collects their elements, assembles their architecture, and marks their surfaces. And yet in each instance Johnson makes sure to include a means of escape, both for himself and his viewers, so that his art never about one person alone. If anything, the work registers the importance of choosing how and when one flees the imposed constraints of personhood, whether these occur in the form of institutional power or internalized psychological projections—forces it is sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. Breaking free of what we know about ourselves allows a new, more vital, and less self-centered kind of knowledge to take root.
To be sure, undergoing such transformation does not come without anxiety. The brokenness at stake in Standing Broken Men alludes to this danger, and to the violence that can—and often must—accompany it, but it is equally attuned to the potential for new combinations, for old things to be rearranged in new ways that completely change how they function in the material world. The snaking line of blue tiles that passes just above the figure’s heart emphasizes that he is made of the teeming, fractured atmosphere around him. A bolt of abstraction, the line also pushes its way into the foreground, splitting apart any vestiges of spatial illusion and fusing the work, as picture and object, with the broken world we inhabit here and now.
In 2019, Rashid Johnson (b. 1977, Chicago; lives and works in New York) was the subject of solo exhibitions at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City and the Aspen Art Museum, Colorado. Other solo exhibitions include shows at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2017), which traveled to the Milwaukee Art Museum (2017); McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas (2017); Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2016); Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo, Italy (2016); Drawing Center, New York (2015); and Kunsthalle Winterthur, Switzerland (2014). Recent and forthcoming group exhibitions include The Stomach and the Port, Liverpool Biennial, England (2020); The Seventh Continent, 16th Istanbul Biennial (2019); Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, Prospect New Orleans (2017); Good Dreams, Bad Dreams: American Mythologies, Aïshti Foundation, Beirut (2016); America Is Hard to See, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); and ILLUMInations, International Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011). His first feature-length film, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, premiered on HBO in 2019.
Or explore the myriad lines of further reading, looking, and listening embedded within Johnson’s artworks…
READING RASHID JOHNSON
Johnson often layers autobiographical, cultural, and conceptual references in his compositions in the form of actual objects, including books, LP record covers, and videos. Below is a selected list of literature and music featured in and inspiring Johnson’s work. Each volume offers insight into his influences and thinking; together they evoke the moods and atmospheres that pervade his artmaking—and the experiences it invites. (Johnson's work housing each object is denoted in parentheses.)
Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers - Three Blind Mice, 1962 (The End of Anger, 2012)
Alice Coltrane - Journey in Satchidananda, 1971 (Gotta Match, 2014)
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme, 1965 (Love Supreme, 2010)
Eric Dolphy - Other Aspects, 1987 (Host, 2013)
Earth, Wind & Fire - Electric Universe, 1983 (Electric Universe, 2009)
Isaac Hayes - Black Moses, 1971 (We Hood, 2014)
Andrew Hill - Black Fire, 1964 (Black Fire, 2014)
Les McCann - Music Lets Me Be, 1977 (The Moment of Creation, 2011)
Gary McFarland - The In Sound, 1965 (In the City, 2014)
Eric B. and Rakim - Paid in Full, 1987 (Paid in Full, 2013)
Amiri Baraka, The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, 1991 (Reader, 2011)
Claudia Rankine - Citizen: An American Lyric, 2014 (Untitled Microphone Sculpture, 2018)
Constance Webb - Richard Wright: A Biography, 1968 (Black Fire, 2014)
Dick Gregory - Write me in!, 1968 (The Shuttle, 2011)
Eldridge Cleaver - Soul on Ice, 1968 (Swimming, 2014)
Ellis Cose - The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage, 2011 (The End of Anger, 2012)
The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1991 (Host, 2013)
Patrice Lumumba - Lumumba Speaks: The Speeches and Writings of Patrice Lumumba, 1958-1961, 1972 (2nd of December, 2012)
Paul Beatty - The Sellout, 2015 (Fiend, 2017; Untitled Microphone Sculpture, 2018)
Richard Wright - Native Son, 1940 (Swimming, 2014; Here to Stay, 2014; Antoine’s Organ, 2016; others)
Portraits of Rashid Johnson: Kendall Mills, 2017
Standing Broken Men images: Martin Parsekian
Performance view: Rashid Johnson: The Rainbow Sign, April 7 – May 19, 2018, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Photo by Marcello Ambriz
Installation view: Rashid Johnson: The Hikers, July 27 – November 10, 2019, Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, Photo by Ramiro Cháves
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