A Jesus that swears like a sailor, turns water into Cognac, smokes all the weed and hangs out in Compton. That’s Jesus as portrayed in Adult Swim’s new comedy “Black Jesus,” the brainchild of Aaron McGruder, who also created “The Boondocks” comics strip. It’s also a show that totally engrosses New York-based artist Rashid Johnson. (Watch a “Black Jesus” clip here.)
Johnson, an installation artist and painter whose work has been displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the L.A. County Museum of Art and who this week is opening up his third solo show at David Kordanksy, says he has long been a fan of McGruder’s work, which explores questions of race, class and identity with an acerbic eye.
“As an undergrad at Columbia College in Chicago, I came across ‘Boondocks,’ and then I watched the ‘Boondocks’ television show,” Johnson says. “I became a big fan of what he was doing. His humor is very biting and very funny. So, right now I’ve been into ‘Black Jesus.’”
The fact that McGruder is able to get laughs out of tough issues is part of what appeals to Johnson. “The whole ability to look at the complexity of race and any sort of associated -ism and still find humor, that’s a very interesting space,” Johnson explains. “And in this case, he’s putting religion and race into the discourse. That’s one big hot button. And that’s what draws me. He is unafraid.”
While the stoner hijinks are funny, the program, says Johnson, offers a “less common view of the black male character,” and an interesting window into African American culture. This starts with the very depiction of a black Jesus Christ, which has been a motif in vernacular religious art for decades.
“Growing up in Chicago,” says the artist, “there was a very particular type of home that would display the black Jesus figure. It wasn’t a radical home. You wouldn’t find these in a Black Panther house. There’s still a strong allegiance to Christianity. But there’s a radicalization going on, taking this conservative agenda and radicalizing it, painting him in our likeness. That’s really interesting to me.”
These considered depictions of black men are something that Johnson has explored in his own work, in, among other things, arrangements of photographs that include himself.
“I’ve always had an interest in complicating the way that we perceive the black character, whether it’s the black academic or scholar or activist or black intellectual.”
Johnson’s installations — wild wall-hangings studded with shelves — employ objects that he has used in the construction of his own identity. These include plants, bits of sculpture, blocks of Shea butter, albums and books. The show at Kordanksy will feature a large, free-standing sculpture incorporating various editions of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son,” a seminal exploration of black identity in the U.S.
The artist says that he has never incorporated an image of a black Jesus into his work. Though he did once use the Isaac Hayes album “Black Moses,” which shows the singer dressed in robes — a presentation of a black man as prophet.
Ultimately, Johnson says that religion isn’t something he considers his strong suit. “My father is the king of the atheists,” he chuckles, “so I did not grow up with any Jesus.”
As a result, the biblical references in television’s “Black Jesus” are often lost on him. “I watch with friends who have more experience with the Bible and they’ll say, ‘That joke is a reference to this’ or ‘It’s a reference to that.’”
He does, however, enjoy the way a show about heavy topics like race and religion can also revel in banal, everyday banter. “The exploration of the mundane is really fascinating,” he says.
“I mean, Jesus must have talked about that stuff too,” Johnson says. “He’d be talking to Paul and someone would be like, ‘What are we going to eat?’ And then someone would have to make a decision about dinner.”
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.