Review: Rashid Johnson’s disparate aesthetics provoke and instruct


In his latest exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, Rashid Johnson filters the marks and swirls of Abstract Expressionism and the blunt stolidity of Minimalism through the Afrocentric material culture of the 1960s.

Although his imposing paintings and floor sculptures are sometimes overwrought, they suggest a reclaiming of art history that is both provocative and wryly humorous.

The monochromatic paintings comprise hectic layers of swirling, intersecting lines that are more incised than painted in grounds of wax and black soap (an African product made from ash). Punctuated with clots and ridges, they form a crust atop shiny black tiles or burnt oak flooring.


The swirl of activity is certainly reminiscent of the gestural abandon of Abstract Expressionism painting, but rather than build an image up from a white ground, Johnson’s gestures implant it further into a black one (literally and figuratively). He has also replaced canvas with smooth, obdurate tile or wood, giving the works a domestic connotation. Gestural fury starts to look less like freedom and more like a violent mess.

The floor sculptures also possess an impressive physicality. Large, rough, rectangular chunks of yellow shea butter (another African skin care product), still wrapped in plastic and cardboard, sit on Persian rugs branded all over with crosshairs and other geometric shapes and stained with scatological splatters of black soap. In the most powerful piece, a single chunk of shea butter sits in the center of a zebra skin, flayed on a Persian rug. One half expects Huey P. Newton to pull up a rattan armchair.

By mixing disparate aesthetics — the extreme formalism of high art and a self-exoticizing, Afrocentric home decor — Johnson could be seen as bridging the perceived gap between them or as an African American artist, remaking art history in a black vernacular.

But the works are not that straightforward. For one thing, both art history and Afrocentrism come out looking a bit silly. Is that chunk of shea butter slightly ridiculous because it’s shea butter trying to look like Minimalist sculpture, or does Minimalist sculpture look ridiculous when rendered in shea butter?

Second, it’s too easy to read African American history into these pieces: The scarred black surfaces look like they were painted with a whip, and the crosshairs — symbol of police brutality and racial profiling — are branded into the carpets. Subtle they’re not.

Johnson might be poking fun at high modernism and Afrocentricism both, but that’s a cynical reading. His focus on the 1960s is instructive.

One painting features a small shelf holding a 1969 LP cover by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an experimental jazz group that appropriated a wide array of everyday objects as instruments. Following their example, Johnson seems to suggest that new cultural forms flow not only from avant-garde traditions handed down from on high, but from what you choose to make of whatever you find on the ground.


David Kordansky Gallery, 3143 S. La Cienega Blvd., Unit A, (310) 558-3030, through Nov. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.