In Rashid Johnson’s mosaics, broken lives are stitched together


“The healing process begins with a conversation of blunt force trauma,” multidisciplinary artist Rashid Johnson said. “It’s a story of recovery.”

After the injury of Covid, the end of the Trump administration and more recently with race, gender, sexuality and identity, Johnson was thinking about his emotional state and our collective one, as he sees it.

Johnson, who turns 44 on Saturday, is mining a psychologically complex moment, both highly personal and open-ended, in new exhibitions David Kordansky Gallery In Los Angeles, watch now, and Metropolitan Opera In New York, opening Monday.

Johnson’s art practice has been kaleidoscope, encompassing painting, sculpture, large-scale installations, film and, more recently, mosaics. His works are visual cosmology, referencing aspects of Johnson’s home life growing up in Chicago and African diaspora culture.

“My work has always had concerns about race, conflict, grief and complaint, but also joy and excitement about tradition and opportunities for blackness,” said Johnson, whose mother was a university student. Provost and whose father is an artist and works in a small electronics company.

For the luxury interior of the Met Opera, Johnson created two 9-by-25-foot mosaic panels in his studio in Brooklyn, each titled “The Broken Nine”. Set on the grand Tier Landing, they incorporate chorus lines of improvised permanent figures pieced together from thousands of pieces of colored ceramics, mirrors and branded wood, across which the artist painted improvised in oil stick, wax and spray enamel. has done.

Their wide-eyed expressions can read as frustration, fear, joy, worry or despair. “I’m trying to portray a lot of different people and at the same time they’re probably just me,” Johnson said.

The work at the Met is also a good metaphor for the opera house, said its general manager Peter Gelb, as it has had to be put back together again after being closed for 18 months and protracted labor disputes. Although the Met had started Johnson’s operations independently two years earlier. Terence Blanchard’s opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Gelb, who also debuts on Monday, sees similarities. The first opera set at the Met by a black composer and black librettist (Kasi Lemmons), based on whose memoir New York Times columnist Charles Blow. “It’s a coming-of-age story about a life that has been damaged and then repaired,” Gelb said.

“Rashid thinks and works on a large scale,” said Met Opera Gallery director Dodi Kazanjian, who invited Johnson to do site-specific work, as he had done before. Cecily Brown And George Kondo.

Johnson describes a “Humpty Dumpty” quality to his series of “Broken Men” mosaics, which he debuted in 2018. But unlike the nursery rhyme of childhood, the artist has put his broken figures together again. They reflect the artist’s challenges and professional rise over the past decade – during which time Johnson has become a parent with his wife, Sherry Hovsepian, whom he met at the Graduate School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He also stopped drinking and using drugs during his journey of sobriety in 2014.

Seeing things with a new clear vision, he began his series, “worried men” In 2015, rectangular faces with curved eyes and chattering teeth covered in black soap and wax on white ceramic tile. They were replicated in a massive grid like a crowd Hauser and Wirth As an individual and collective response to the acrimonious storm of polarized politics and racial dynamics during the 2016 election.

Johnson has become a leading voice of his generation, taking on board positions Guggenheim Museumhandjob proforma And ballroom marfa, and helping raise awareness of contributions by other black artists by introducing photographers Dina Lawson Curating another show for Kordanski Hard-Edge Painting of the 1960s by Sam Gilliam In that gallery in 2013. This year Johnson’s work was acquired Metropolitan Museum And this Museum of Modern Art, and his “Anxious red painting December 18” Christie’s set a new auction record for the artist at over $1.9 million.

The characters in his mosaics appear to be rough, but they are made in an armature that is solid, something the artist loves about the medium. “They’ve certainly been through some, but the experiences they’ve had to negotiate have probably left good marks,” Johnson said. Inspired by the “The Broken Nine” part for the Met Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Which he read with his family in Bridgehampton, NY during quarantine and in Peruvian pictures by religious figures. “Each character has a real autonomy. They don’t have to be tragic,” he said.

Ian Altavier, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who led its acquisition “The Broken Five,” A 2019 work look there, finds the figures surprisingly fuzzy. “They can be stand-ins for the artist himself or for witnesses facing the world and the horrors of it all,” Altavier said. “They may be even more magical than that – strange new creatures on the verge of a new world.”

For Johnson’s show in Kordanski, which was titled “Black and Blue”, he used louis armstrong song of the same name as the departure point. In a new series called “Bruise Paintings”, his figure of worried face is now almost entirely abstract, presented in a frantic freehand with a palette of blues and repeated in linen in vast grids.

“It’s incredibly musical because of the way it works,” Kordanski said, “like bebop, growing from a template.”

In another room on the show, the face returns to three dimensions, now that the seasoned cubes are cast in bronze and stacked like totem, with blue succulents growing absurdly like hair. Johnson jammed in vinyl copies of Armstrong’s “Black and Blue”—a record in which the protagonist “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison listened continuously. Artist cut surfaces out of oyster shells, which he has also used in earlier works Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” In which she wrote: “I don’t cry in the world – I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

Johnson said, “I always found the idea of ​​being free, in a place of non-tragedy, to be so beautiful, but to go even further and imagine that you have so much agency to enjoy this leisure activity.” have been,” Johnson said, referring to the oysters. ‘ Meanings of luxury and sensuality.

These references re-emerge in a short film on the gallery scene shot at Johnson’s home in Bridgehampton that captures some of the dreary, surreal, intimidating, mundane virtues of quarantine life. The artist plays the main character – waking up, brushing his teeth, watching the talking head drone on TV, going for a run. Their 9-year-old son, Julius, practices “Black and Blue” on the piano and does homework as Johnson reads Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” At one point he stirs oysters on the table.

“It’s quite rare to see Black characters unencumbered and centralized,” Johnson said. “Yet you have to ask yourself, why is this still worried? This guy’s in a house in the Hamptons. Why does it look like something’s still going to happen?” (He directed a film adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” in 2019, which ends with the death of his young black hero.)

Guggenheim Museum curator Katherine Brinson remembers Johnson once telling her that she enjoyed wondering if Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader of the 20th century, did it upon his arrival at home and ceased to be a place of public activism.

Brinson said, “Rashid’s new work also deals with the fundamental idea of ​​how life is lived in the private quotidian realm, away from the public eye and obligations to perform certain expected roles.” “It’s still a space that’s full and complicated.”


The Met opens its doors 90 minutes before the performance, but due to Covid-19 only ticket holders are allowed entry. Rashid Johnson’s mural for next week can be seen here metopera.org.



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