In Rashid Johnson's mosaics, shattered lives recreated

“The healing process begins with the negotiation of blunt trauma”, the multidisciplinary artist Rachid johnson noted. “This is the sto...


“The healing process begins with the negotiation of blunt trauma”, the multidisciplinary artist Rachid johnson noted. “This is the story of recovery.

After the bruises from Covid, the end of the Trump administration, and recent calculations with race, gender, sexuality and identity, Johnson was brooding over his own emotional state and our collective state as he sees it.

Johnson, who turns 44 on Saturday, harnesses a psychologically complicated moment in a very personal and open-ended way in new exhibits at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, to see now, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, opening Monday.

Johnson’s artistic practice has been kaleidoscopic, encompassing painting, sculpture, large-scale installation, film and, more recently, mosaic. His works are visual cosmologies, referencing aspects of Johnson’s family life growing up in Chicago and African diasporic culture.

“My work has always had concerns around race, struggle, heartache and grievance, but also joy and excitement around the tradition and the opportunities of the dark,” said Johnson, whose the mother was a university rector and whose father is an artist and ran a small electronics company.

For the luxurious interior of the Met Opera, Johnson created two 9-by-25-foot mosaic panels in his Brooklyn studio, each titled “The Broken Nine.” Installed on the landings of the main floor, they include choir lines of imposing standing figures reconstructed from thousands of fragments of colored ceramics, mirrors and signature woods, on which the artist has painted in an improvised manner with a stick. with oil, wax and enamel spray.

Their wide-eyed expressions could read as frustration, fear, joy, anxiety or disappointment. “I’m trying to illustrate tons of different people and at the same time they’re probably all me,” Johnson said.

The Met’s work is also a good metaphor for opera, said Peter Gelb, its chief executive, as it has had to rebuild itself after being closed for 18 months and during protracted labor disputes. Although the Met commissioned Johnson’s works two years ago, regardless of Terence Blanchard’s opera, “Feu Shut Up in My Bones”, which also debuts on Monday, Gelb sees parallels. The first opera staged at the Met by a black composer and a black librettist (Kasi Lemmons), it is based on the memoirs of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. “It’s a coming of age story about a life that’s damaged and then mended,” Gelb said.

“Rashid thinks and works on a scale that is operatic,” said Dodie Kazanjian, director of the Met Opera gallery, who invited Johnson to do site-specific work, as she had previously done with Cecily brown and George Condo.

Johnson attributes a “Humpty Dumpty” quality to his “Broken Men” mosaic series, which he began in 2018. But unlike the childhood rhyme, the artist has reconstructed his broken figures. They reflect the challenges and professional rise of the artist over the past decade – during which Johnson parented, along with his wife, Sheree hovsepian, whom he met at the graduate school of the Art Institute of Chicago. He also quit drinking and using drugs during his sobriety journey in 2014.

Seeing things with a newly clear vision, he started his streak, “Anxious men”, in 2015, rectangular faces with spiral eyes and chattering teeth scrawled with black soap and wax on a white ceramic tile. They were rehearsed on large scale grids as crowds at Hauser & Wirth in the 2016 election as a personal and collective response to the searing uproar of polarized politics and racial dynamics.

Johnson has become a prominent voice of his generation, serving on the board of directors of the Guggenheim museum, Performa and Marfa Ballroom, and helping to publicize the contributions of other black artists, by introducing the photographer Deana lawson in Kordansky and by organizing a Sam Gilliam’s 1960s hard-edge paintings at this gallery in 2013. This year, Johnson’s work was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum and the modern Art Museum, and his “Anxious red painting on December 18th” set a new auction record at Christie’s for the artist, over $ 1.9 million.

The figures in his mosaics may appear to have been crude, but they are embedded in a solid frame, which the artist loves about the medium. “They certainly went through something, but those experiences that they had to negotiate may have been the ones that left some good scars,” Johnson said. “The Broken Nine” for the Met was inspired in part by “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley which he read during his forties with his family in Bridgehampton, NY, and also by religious figures in Peruvian paintings. “There is a real autonomy in each character. They don’t have to be tragic, ”he said.

Ian Alteveer, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who led the acquisition of “The Broken Five”, a work from 2019 on display there, finds the numbers wonderfully ambiguous. “They could be replacements for the artist himself or witnesses to the world and the horror of it all,” Alteveer said. “They could also be more magical than that – strange new beings on the edge of a whole new world.”

For Johnson’s show at Kordansky, titled “Black and Blue,” he used Louis Armstrong’s song of the same name as a starting point. In a new series called “Bruise Paintings,” his anxious face motif is now almost completely abstract, rendered frenzied freehand with a palette of blues and repeated on linen in expansive grids.

“It’s incredibly musical in the way it works,” Kordansky said, “like the bebop, which grows from a model.”

In another performance hall, the face returns to three dimensions, now as patinated cubes cast in bronze and stacked like totem poles, with blue succulents popping out absurdly like hair. Johnson jammed in vinyl copies of Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” – a record the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s novel “The Invisible Man” listened to constantly. The artist marbled the surfaces with oyster shells, which he also used in earlier works as a reference to “How it feels to be colorful by Zora Neale Hurston” in which she writes, “I’m not crying over the world – I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” “

“I’ve always found it so beautiful, this idea of ​​being released in a place of non-tragedy, but to expand even beyond and imagine that you have so much agency that you enjoy this action of leisure, ”said Johnson, referring to oysters. connotations of luxury and sensuality.

These references resurface in a gallery view short filmed at Johnson’s home in Bridgehampton that captures some of the monotonous, surreal, frightening and mundane qualities of life in quarantine. The artist plays the main character – wake up, brush your teeth, watch talking heads buzz on TV, go for a run. Her 9-year-old son Julius practices “Black and Blue” on the piano and does his homework while Johnson reads “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison. At one point, he hulls the oysters at the table.

“It’s pretty rare to see a black character without a hitch and centralized,” Johnson said. “Yet you must be asking yourself, why is this still anxious?” This guy’s in a Hamptons house. Why does it always feel like something is about to happen? (He directed a film adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel ‘Native Son’ in 2019 that ends with the death of his young black protagonist.)

Katherine Brinson, curator at the Guggenheim Museum, remembers Johnson once telling her he liked to wonder what Patrice Lumumba, the 20th century Congolese independence leader, did so when he returned home and ceased to live in the space of public activism.

“Rashid’s new work also addresses this fundamental idea of ​​how life is lived in the everyday private sphere, away from the public eye and the obligations to perform certain expected roles,” said Brinson. “It’s always a busy and complex space. “


The Met opens 90 minutes before a performance, but due to Covid-19, only ticket holders are admitted. Next week, Rashid Johnson’s mural can be seen on metopera.org.

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