Major Works: Rashid Johnson, Tell it on the Mountain provides an in-depth look at a pivotal wall-based work from 2013 in which Johnson employs a system of mark-making that is both powerfully expressive and conceptually rich. Combining material languages from painting and sculpture, and driven by intellectual, emotional, and visual urgencies with roots in James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, the visual iconography of hip hop group Public Enemy, Black secret societies, and his own experiences growing up as a Black man in Chicago, Tell it on the Mountain is an encompassing summation of his first decade of work and a revelatory window into the artist’s advances that would soon follow. Johnson takes on multiple legacies of abstract expressionism, introducing techniques and ideas often considered anathema to it, and thereby revitalizing the discourse for the twenty-first century while posing tough questions about American life in the past, present, and future.
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Johnson debuted some of the first of his wall-based works incorporating the use of branded wood flooring at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. He had already demonstrated a tendency to employ non-art-specific materials in compositions that nonetheless bordered, at times, on pure abstraction, but these examples were notable for their palpable psychological intensity—an effect of the pervasive nature of the marks that were burned, scratched, painted, and drawn onto and into them.
I’m very interested in how the personal and collective meet, how often they meet, and how much we’re negotiating with our own biographies and the way that relates to the collective understanding of the world and how the experiences that we share come together.
Like the tile and mirrored tile that also served as supports in works from this period, wood flooring is most frequently encountered in domestic settings. Though Johnson was increasingly pushing what began as a more sculptural vocabulary into the realm of painting, he was also creating objects that were evocative of architectural spaces. A group of works from the previous year, for instance, could be read as elements in a fictional space the artist sometimes referred to as “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club.” Inspired by African American secret societies and lesser-known mechanisms of power wielded by Black men, these works took form as reliquaries, filled with resonant signifiers like books, records, and plants, in addition to less immediately identifiable marks.
Even though they are hard to the touch, and often appear in Johnson’s work in starkly geometric, grid-like formations, tile and wood alike bring with them a tactile intimacy, and a sense of utility that suggests the work might have lived another life before becoming a standalone art object.
These materials differ, in this respect, from canvas, which in art-related contexts carries with it an aura of supposed neutrality. Flooring also has special relevance as a material designed to be trodden underfoot. By lifting it into a vertical position and using it as a ground for various kinds of marks, Johnson creates a support that is an active element in the work, both physically and conceptually. The move also serves as a reminder that all art objects exist on a continuum of perception and meaning. It is important that Johnson has also created a number of works and installations that are not only floor-based in the manner of traditional sculpture, but truly part of the floor.
In Message to our Folks, his 2012 solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Johnson installed branded wood flooring in several of the galleries, where it informed the ways in which the other works were approached, perceived, and understood. In an essay in the show’s accompanying catalogue, Touré observes that Johnson “excavates his personal relationship to Black culture, but… also digs into the universal personal, because here, he says, he’s ‘hijacking the domestic…’ Its building blocks were around you all the time; you just didn’t have enough of an eye to see them before. (Duchamp would be so pleased.) We love art that transforms the way we see the world.”
Johnson imports more than the domestic ordinariness of wood into Tell it on the Mountain, however. Already beginning with the work’s title, he opens up an expansive frame of reference. James Baldwin’s 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical account of his life in 1930s Harlem, as seen through the perspectives of different members of a Pentecostal Church. It is an autobiography that addresses the self by inviting multiplicity and complexity rather than a narrowing of focus, and by exploring complex, overlapping, and often contradictory existential currents in Black life.
My goal has always been to explore and push past monolithic narratives and to define my personal identity in the way that I prefer it be defined. I want to explore my position, such as my Black self, inside and outside of that subject matter, so that it is not defined for me.
Like the novel, Tell it on the Mountain is a document born of differing ideas about what life and art can be. It combines completely abstract marks, executed with a mixture of black soap and black wax that is one of Johnson’s signature mediums, with branded images of cross-hairs and palm trees.
The soap and wax mixture is analogous to the wood flooring support onto which it is applied because it too is made from something that is usually employed for another purpose. Black soap, produced in West Africa, is prized for its restorative and moisturizing properties; though Johnson uses it to execute violently explosive splatters and drips, it is a substance intended for healing.
The brands, meanwhile, are perhaps Tell it on the Mountain’s most conceptually far-reaching component. The crosshairs are, on one level, geometric forms whose basic building blocks—the circle and the cross—can generate a multitude of symbolic readings. But Johnson pulls them from a very particular source in recent culture. The genre-defining hip hop group Public Enemy used images of crosshairs as logos on several of their album covers as a way of giving visual shape to the issues inherent in their name, which brings together equal parts vulnerability, aggression, empowerment, and social and historical awareness.
But the impact of the branded crosshairs expands beyond their graphic presentation. These are marks that Johnson applies to the wood support through what amounts to an act of transformation. They do not sit on top of the support, but instead become part of its permanent physical makeup. Associations with the branding of skin are unavoidable. Most disturbingly, the marks are reminders of the fact that Black slaves were branded for identification or punishment. Brands also reportedly played a role in initiation ceremonies conducted by the non-collegiate fraternity Sigma Pi Phi, founded in the early years of the twentieth century to provide Black men, often from the upper and intellectual classes, with a closed—and therefore protected—space for professional development and shared reflection on their experiences of navigating American life.
Visible through the dense network of crosshairs are a few branded images of palm trees. Their specificity would seem to differentiate them from the context in which Johnson has placed them, but they are clues to Tell it on the Mountain’s wide-ranging power. Over the course of his career, Johnson has spoken at length about escapism and the role it has played in Black life as a spur to the imagination. If conditions on the ground are oppressive, thinking about what other places might feel like and look like is a natural instinct, one that has given rise to liberating movements like Afrofuturism. It also becomes a vessel for picturing what success might bring: more wealth, more mobility, the chance to visit “exotic” locations.
The palm trees, then, are symbols for what happens when someone who feels like they don’t quite belong where they are imagines the pleasures another place might provide: symbols, in other words, for how otherness generates otherness, and how belonging is inseparable from displacement. If some people belong, others do not; the ones who do not, dream of someplace else.
Growing up in Chicago, the idea of getting to a place that was tropical was all about opportunity:
“I made it to somewhere Caribbean!” Many of us share the idea of what that exotic location looks like.
Tell it on the Mountain addresses these complex states of being as they are expressed through politics and race, as well as through the act of making art itself, which hinges upon the recognition—some would say the celebration—of difference. It is a painting that upends standard painting methodologies, and one whose abstraction is rooted in very real, identifiable conditions. Its scale is both embracing and imposing, its teeming grids of distinct materials both dizzying and grounding, and its prevailing ethos animated by equal degrees of order and chaos. In these respects, it is a work about balance, and the equanimity required to tell your own story, especially when conflict rages around—and within—you.
In September 2021, Rashid Johnson will present a solo exhibition that will encompass all three gallery spaces at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, as well as large-scale artworks commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for its opera house in New York that will be on view during the 2021-2022 season. A major outdoor sculpture by Johnson was recently installed at Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York. ‘Stage,’ Johnson’s interactive installation and sound work, is open through fall 2021 at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. Recent solo exhibitions include Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2019); Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2019); Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2017), which traveled to the Milwaukee Art Museum (2017); Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2016); and Drawing Center, New York (2015).
Notable group exhibitions include Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, New Museum, New York (2021); The Stomach and the Port, Liverpool Biennial, England (2021); Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); and ILLUMInations, International Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011). His work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His first feature-length film, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, premiered on HBO in 2019. Johnson lives and works in New York.
Artwork photography by Martin Parsekian
Installation photography courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery
Videography by McLean Kotas
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