Rashid Johnson: The Rainbow Sign
at David Kordansky Gallery (Through May 19, 2018)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
Viscous black liquids cascade down the picture planes as scrawled drawings of agonized grimaces and anxious eyes confront the viewer at every turn. Indeed, Brooklyn-based multimedia artist Rashid Johnson’s current David Kordansky exhibition, The Rainbow Sign is a masterclass in haunting and subtly violent imagery. Extracting its title from an often-cited passage in James Baldwin’s 1963 bestseller, The Fire Next Time, this eclectic collection of wall sculptures, ceramic cups, mosaic portraits, and psychedelic collages presents a poignant reflection on notions of cultural identity and protest.
After a flirtation with black and white portrait photography early in his career, Johnson is currently exploring themes of African-American culture and history through highly conceptual sculpture and assemblage pieces. Over the past decade, the artist’s work has become synonymous with the unification of gestural Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual art. The viewer can easily spot this fusion of forms within his Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell-inspired wall-sculptures on display here. These monumental works are broken up into a handful of smaller sections, each boasting a unique aesthetic feature. For example, we see one section in each sculpture filled with a roughly molded yellow solid. Through supplementary information, we learn that this substance is shea butter, a beloved cure-all moisturizer originally found in West African countries. Not only does the eye here connect the mounds and depressions in the surface with traditional sculpture, but also we begin to understand Johnson’s social message with the use of this material. The artist explains, “When I was younger, I would see shea butter being sold on the street, and I was interested in how people were still coating themselves in the theater of Africanism.” Although the members of his community were thousands of miles of away from African shores, they still felt a nostalgic pull towards the beauty rituals of their homeland.
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