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David Williams

Artist Rashid Johnson’s latest work ponders the limits of freedom

Written by
Paul Laster

The youngest artist in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s seminal 2001 exhibition “Freestyle,” Rashid Johnson embraced curator Thelma Golden’s notion of “post-black” culture more than any other artist in that show. Fifteen years later, Johnson’s multimedia work has grown to encompass a wide range of everyday materials and objects while exploring diverse ways of expressing his experience as an African-American. Johnson sat down with Time Out New York to discuss his latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth gallery in Chelsea (his biggest in New York to date), its theme of escape and how that relates to the arc of black history.

You’ve titled this show “Fly Away,” after the old spiritual about leaving the burdens of earthly existence behind. Why that song?
I’ve always been interested in the desire to escape and how it operates historically. Black Americans have had a complicated relationship with the idea, both in the North and the South, whether it was Marcus Garvey saying, “Let’s go back to Africa,” or Sun Ra claiming he’s from Saturn. Then there’s the writer Paul Beatty suggesting somewhat facetiously that all blacks should commit suicide as a way of getting off the plantation.

How has that idea related to your life?
Not just to my life. We all think these things, and we all have this feeling as young people of being in limbo, thinking, Where can I go? What am I searching for? We’re all looking to escape some facet of how complicated our lives are. That was certainly true when I was young, and it’s still something I’m interested in exploring and thinking about.

You have a series of reliefs depicting the same figure—a pixelated form made of bathroom tiles—turned upside down against backdrops like wooden floorboards. They seem to be trapped in chaos. Are they meant to represent that?
Well, while they seem to be falling, they could also be seen as flying. I don’t see them as trapped—more like they’ve accepted their fate. But to be honest, those are things I’m still trying to understand about those pieces. They haven’t revealed their whole meaning yet.

You also have another series showing grids of loosely rendered faces in black soap on white tile. What is the metaphor there?
I never really work with a metaphor in mind. It’s more like I see myself in those scrawled faces. They’re anxious characters, uncertain about a world that’s not providing answers for the questions they have. So am I.

There’s something almost shamanistic about the way you work. Do you think of yourself as a mystic?
Do I have any specific ambition to be seen that way? No. But the process of making work is mystical to me. Art is mystic in its own right.

Rashid Johnson’s “Fly Away” is at Hauser & Wirth New York through Oct 22

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