At its core, Rashid Johnson’s new exhibition of solo works at Hauser & Wirth, “Fly Away”, is a cycle: four rooms of both flat and sculptural works that work themselves out into a circular progression, spitting the viewer from room to room and developing certain visual tropes along the way.
The first room the viewer experiences upon entering the gallery is a vast white space (surprise) filled with monolithic drawings, made with a blend of black soap and wax and mounted on large rectangular chunks of bathroom tile. The drawings are jittery asymmetrical grids of crude black faces with teeth barred, giving off a completely ambiguous but ultimately nerve-wracking and paranoid seeming emotional atmosphere.
What struck me upon seeing these works was that they looked like feces smeared on a bathroom wall, not to their detriment. They seemed like spontaneous works of art made by a person pushed to the edge of their sanity, something someone artistically inclined might do in the midst of a nervous breakdown, in a Punch Drunk Love-esque fit of bathroom destroying ragev. They evoke the vile, and radiate primal emotion and mark making, riding the line between abstract expressionism and symbolic representation.
The door on the far end of that room leads to another space where the viewer is presented with a similar set of works on tile, except in this set of pieces the 2 dimensional space of the tile begins to deconstruct itself. Primary colors invade the white space of the tiles, and diagonal and ovular pieces of wallpaper give the viewers a peek into artificial depictions of nature, lush forests, and palm trees.
In the other intermediary room, mostly 2 dimensional works made of various different materials including mirrored glass, oak, and black paint depict abstracted human figures that recall pixilation. In the center of that room, large chunks of shea butter, which evoke dismembered pieces of flesh, lie on top of a large oak table covered by a Persian rug.
However the climax of the exhibition lies in the back room, where “Antoine’s Organ”, a gargantuan structure of black scaffolding, is loaded with an overwhelming amount of icons, imagery, and objects, including potted plants, fluorescent lights, books, and televisions upon which single channel videos play.
Some books included in the sculpture have titles such as The Souls of Black Folks, The End of Blackness, and The Sellout. On one of the tv screens, the instrumental to the song “Criminal Minded” by Boogie Down Productions, a pioneering hip-hop group famous for making the first rap album to feature a gun on the cover, is played over footage of a black church choir singing, combining two elements of black culture that are traditionally viewed as polar opposites.
In perhaps my favorite element of this multi faceted sculpture, potted plants are placed much of the time in custom made ceramic pots, which mirror certain visual motifs present in other rooms of the exhibition. However the simple formal experiments made in these ceramics push this shape language of Johnson’s to much further and more intriguing places than the rest of the works in the gallery, giving a respite from the overwhelmingly conceptual aspects of the exhibition and simply providing the viewer with some beautifully made formal pieces of art to look at.
As a white person it’s impossible for me to have anything valid or insightful to say about how Fly Away speaks to the black experience and how well it does so. However, as an artist, I can say that the show left something to be desired.
Even though I found myself more satisfied with the show after experiencing all four rooms, and seeing how each of them interlocks with the next, I couldn’t appreciate the works in the other three rooms as much after viewing the awe inspiring and overwhelming power of “Antoine’s Organ”. The other works paled in comparison to that final piece, which could be appreciated from a distance and circled like a classic monolithic sculpture, or scrutinized to no end up close as the impressive synthesis of dozens of different ideas, forms, materials and concepts. In addition, “Antoine’s Organ” provided an excellent contrast with the gallery’s first room, taking the viewer on a journey from the horrific and terrifying space of the bathroom wall drawings to the sublime beauty and cultural consciousness of the nature engulfed “organ”.
Other rooms in the gallery suffered from contemporary art’s current obsession with (expensive) materiality. Perhaps if the concepts and forms they presented were explored further this would not be the case. Although this short coming of the show rests mostly on Johnson’s shoulders, this may be due partially to the greedy and decadent world of New York art galleries which lend themselves only to easily sellable works and not to more immersive installations, site specific pieces, and progressive 21st century art.