Critics’ Picks

Rashid Johnson, Antoine’s Organ, 2016, black steel, grow lights, plants, wood, shea butter, books, monitors, rugs, piano, 15’ 8” x 28’ 2” x 10’ 7”.

New York

Rashid Johnson

Hauser & Wirth | West 18th Street
511 West 18th Street
September 8–October 22, 2016

The title of Rashid Johnson’s current exhibition, “Fly Away,” refers to a musical standard performed over the past century by gospel singers as well as sampled by Kanye West. For this show, the song was also played in the gallery by the pianist Audio BLK. While the inclusion of live music adds a new sensory layer to a career that, for years, has drawn from from a vast archive of signifiers of blackness, the work on display will seem familiar to many. The exhibition is largely given over to two series of paintings: “Untitled Anxious Audience,” 2016, featuring smears of black soap and wax on Johnson’s signature grids of tile; and “Falling Man,” 2015, which references the artist’s earlier assemblages of mirrors, spray paint, and oak flooring. In both, Johnson wears his influences on his sleeve—David Hammons, Chris Ofili, Nari Ward—and, of course, himself, with reprinted and collaged scenes from his own photographs.

But this exhibition allows Johnson to work out his play with materials and referents on a massive scale, especially in the room-size sculpture Antoine’s Organ, 2016—a modular structure that’s fused to its conceptual lattice with an Africana reading room. The work invites you to look inward but keeps you at a distance with an overgrowth of houseplants, small video stations, and stacked books, including Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015). The latter is a knowing jab at Johnson’s own absorption into the global gallery system. Whether the show constitutes the sort of ambivalent critique from within of his forebears or a more solipsistic deployment of his personal history isn’t entirely clear, and, for that reason, it is an important provocation in pressing conversations about identity, memory, and power in contemporary art.