Boats have populated Rashid Johnson’s view lately, especially in the past two years after the artist began spending more time on the Hamptons side of Long Island. Since then, boats have unearthed connotations beyond vehicles or charming visual accents on the shore. The epiphany coincided with a heightened sense of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and with those battling the pandemic — unity, agency and coexistence, Johnson noted, are notions contained in both his professional and personal circles and the likeness and purpose of a boat.
During those long, idyllic days of gazing at the horizon, he heard many expressions of unity and, all being somewhat true, he also reflected on the meaning of being in the same boat. What was the direction? Or who were his fellow travelers? Johnson’s answers – or at least his research – are a series of paintings and sculptures with boat motifs in his new exhibition at the Hauser & Wirth art center in Menorca. Proving that motivation works in mysterious ways, the Brooklyn-based artist created the show’s large-scale paintings and four hearth sculptures encrusted with VHS tapes, a CB radio, a book and oyster shells. , without knowing their destination. “When the opportunity to show them surrounded by water arose, it was clear that the works belonged to Menorca,” he says.
Inside Rashid Johnson’s East Williamsburg studio
Johnson’s studio in East Williamsburg — which could well serve as a warehouse or moonlit mini-factory — is busy with a combination of work in progress and one waiting to dry. Standing amid canvases laying on top of each other or leaning side by side, Johnson is dressed leisurely, all in black, on a blustery, slow-paced February afternoon, the kind of afternoon that deserves a big cookie, which he offers.
Partly inherent to his aura, Johnson’s calmness also stems from the fact that he’s said goodbye to the show’s artwork. They are already on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean, possibly facing the descending sea towards the Strait of Gibraltar, through which they will cut for the small Spanish island. One can imagine Johnson’s boat prints, either night-hued repeats on linen or firm bronze formations, rocking back and forth against the diligent waves. Movement, however, is not always desirable. Atlantic history is awash with forced migration, and Johnson’s show borrows its title, “Sodade,” from another work of art that perfectly captures this reality. The Cape Verdean song of the same name, delivered in the velvety voice of Cesária Évora, is an ode to longing and the fear of loss promised by the sea. The poignant lyrics pay homage to the Cape Verdeans of yesterday and today who left the island in search of other opportunities: ‘Quem mostrava esse caminho longe? Quem mostrava esse caminho longe? Esse caminho pa Sao Tome (Who showed you this distant path? Who showed you this distant path? This path to São Tomé)’. Written by Armando Zeferino Soares in the 1950s, these lines, in the Cape Verdean Creole version of Portuguese, express weldedmeaning desire.
Johnson’s encounter with the song is tied to a sense of melancholy and nostalgia that persisted through her later years. When the artist shared his feelings with a friend, they told him about a Portuguese word that somewhat sums up his state: saudade. One of those words that captures a very specific feeling that has no translation into another language, saudade expresses the desire for something so near yet undeniably far away. Johnson’s research on the phrase reminded him of the song of Évora and the Cape Verdean Creole version of the word. “The Creole narrative is about cultural formation through colonialism, but also about how language is distorted and reshaped in the hands of people dominated by an outside presence,” he adds. Johnson intentionally used the Creole spelling in the title of her show, to honor the struggle against oppression and resilience in the face of loss, especially sea-related loss.
Over the past two decades, Johnson’s practice, spanning painting, sculpture, installation, and film, has explored notions of authorship, potential, empowerment, and even entitlement. All correspond to a sense of agency. His paintings – thick, almost sculptural and lined with grids of faces, or dressed in mirror shards and mosaics – compel us to think, understand and express. Johnson thinks the painting has the function of a soapbox or a pedestal, a platform for the exchange of ideas. “The visual layer is an entry point for them to enter the work and be challenged, even confused, by what is beyond.”
More literally, the boat sculptures in the show are also functional homes, an invitation to come together, warm up and converse. “The vehicle has been so present in my work – language can be a vehicle for ideas, just like painting, aesthetics or branding,” he says. In this sense, he likens a boat to a stage, the kind he built in Astor Place in midtown Manhattan last June, with the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time. For a month, its Red Stage was bustling with poets, dancers, musicians, thinkers and anyone with something to say. He calls them bonfires. “An open stage or a boat on fire allows audiences to think about ideas of self-reliance and collectivity, especially when we’re building so many coalitions around Black Lives Matter, the environment, and the LGBTQIA movements.”
“That moment was satisfying, an opportunity to think about the world instead of being trapped in my own existential enigma”
Johnson’s work, while unifying, does not compromise on subjective and singular experiences. Reflection, both internal and physical, is key in his mosaics and mixed media mirror paintings, which have the energy of abstract expressionism and the social weight of murals. Radiant, meticulous and poetic, the coalescence of fragments “invites the viewer to reconstitute the pieces and build their collective experience”. This subtle invitation to communion is a central element of the anxious men and Bruise Paintings series, characterized by determined hand gestures and endless repetitions. Whether it’s a face or an abstract circle, the army of patterns on the linen multiply in hallucinatory masses, challenging the viewer to separate each figure from the next. The effort, however, is in vain – better to surrender to Johnson’s orchestration of a pictorial cosmos and delve into the synthesis of black and blue brushstrokes.
Johnson’s color palette stems from a dynamic between his cultural observations and the alchemy of oil painting. Blue is the result of his reflection on the history of blues music, as well as many periods of artists dedicated to the hue. “A lot of times I let the color think for itself,” he adds. The yellow, which he usually renders in an alarming hue, is linked to his occasional use of shea butter in some carvings. “There is a snowflake in brand making because a gesture can never be repeated,” he says. “But there’s satisfaction in trying to repeat yourself like a mantra.” The democracy Johnson finds in the form of the grid – whether with faces, boats or circles – allows him to honor every gesture equally, “and aspires to give each section the same opportunity to ‘amplification’, much like a voice to be heard or an arm raised.
Johnson constructs his grids as a meditative act, rather than basing them on numerical order. The facial impression in the anxious men The series was originally intended as a self-portrait, but the feedback it received proved the sentiment spoke to many. “That moment was satisfying, to recognize that it was an opportunity to think about the world instead of being trapped in my own existential enigma.” A mosaic rendition of the series is now a mural at the Delta Terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Connecting with people in places where they don’t necessarily expect to experience art, he says, is a promising endeavour: “You can browse it; you can engage or totally ignore, but regardless, art should have agency in these spaces.
The artist’s admiration for the architectural marvels of his hometown of Chicago and his frustration with its segregated urbanization contribute to his understanding of the impact and role of an object in an environment. His philosophy of occupying a space is twofold: “I was very careful not to pervert the work when it travels, because my voice must travel with the themes, concepts and ideas. Johnson visited Menorca and Barcelona six years ago and found himself inspired by the mosaics of Gaudí and Miró. “This trip encouraged me to experiment with this medium,” he recalls. Although his mosaic paintings are not included in the exhibition ‘Sodade’, a similar reflection on formation and singularity constitutes the Seascape, Abandonment and Bruise Paintings series. The idea of people gathering around his boat sculptures is exciting. “It’s so rare for works of art to have a job,” says Johnson. “But in the case of a fireplace, there is a potential for heat, energy and a place of activation.” §