Rashid Johnson

Walls of ruddy oak paneling provided a posh backdrop to Rashid Johnson’s third solo exhibition at Monique Meloche, for which the artist loosely transformed the long narrow gallery into what appeared to be an exclusive black gentlemen’s recreation center, punctuated by rim shot after rim shot of racial spoofs delivered in the form of gauche assemblages. Incorporated in these sculptural configurations were Johnson’s notorious parodic photographs, as well as houseplants, bowls of shea butter, a beige shag carpet, a wicker chair, tacky decorative paintings, sundry brass knickknacks, and more. Taken as a whole, the installation was humorously anointed with glints of semiprecious metal, exotic arcing palm fronds, and the syncopated sounds of Sun Ra’s afrofuturism, all enveloped in clouds of burning incense. Titled “The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center,” this spurious pageant of black swank was characterized in Johnson’s immodest, and occasionally misspelled, statement: “I’m thinking of this show as a creolized orgy between Sun Ra, Paul Gaugin, Kazmir Malevich, Debra Dickerson, and Eldridge Cleaver (if his soul were no longer on ice). Mix in some green plants, shea butter, black soap and serve.”

Yet much of what was actually being served in this show was little more than warmed-over “post-black” rhetoric, the now scripted blend of high and low cultural signifiers, of insider and outsider power bases, and the uneasy commingling of self-mockery and cockiness. Take for example A day in the life of a young Negro scholar and socialite #2, #3, and #4 (all works 2008), three freestanding oak wall units referred to on the checklist as pedestals, each of which sports a black and off-white abstract painting on its front face. These canvases, which Johnson calls “starscapes,” feature the negative space of rice, cottonseeds, and black-eyed peas that had been strewn across the surfaces while the artist spray-painted them. Along the top of these oak pedestals sits a crowded array of brass chalices and houseplants growing from pots that have been slathered in black wax and decorated with bands of hastily sprayed gold paint.

These architectural display units are perfectly proportioned amalgams of kitsch, aesthetic stereotypes, funk, and Johnson’s supersize ego. The same mockery and predictable “post-black” syntax are employed in the two works that had been installed on the wall-to-wall shag rug in the gallery’s project room. China Gates is a freestanding steel sculpture designed after a Mondrian composition and serves as a shelf for a brass candlestick-cum–incense burner. Occupying one corner of the room, Wicker Stars consists of a Pier 1–style wicker chair propping up another diamond-shaped black-and-white “starscape.” Because their ridicule is so relentless as to grow dreary, Johnson’s sculptural works come up short both formally and as cultural critique.

It is the writ-large vanity evidenced in Johnson’s photographs that successfully betrays willful and ill-mannered critique. Self-portrait as the black Jimmy Connors in the finals of the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Summer Tennis Tournament marks the return of the red-striped tube socks that Johnson wore in his infamous frontal nude Self-portrait in homage to Barkley Hendricks from 2005. In the new work, the artist, decked in retro tennis wear, holds a tennis ball in one hand and an old wooden racket behind his head in the other. A dense cloud of smoke, perhaps drifting from a nearby barbecue, enshrouds him as he stands in a backyard patio garden ready to serve. Johnson’s outrageous humor and his come-hither play with identity politics are executed brilliantly in this riotous image. Unlike his objects and installations, his photographs have a welcome tendency to satirize “Johnson,” the big, beautiful, black artist, before they lampoon stereotypical notions of black identity.

Michelle Grabner