New York

Rashid Johnson, Black Yoga Communication Station, 2011, mixed media, 84 x 71 1/2 x 110".

Rashid Johnson, Black Yoga Communication Station, 2011, mixed media, 84 x 71 1/2 x 110".

Rashid Johnson

Hauser & Wirth | West 18th Street

Rashid Johnson, Black Yoga Communication Station, 2011, mixed media, 84 x 71 1/2 x 110".

Suppose that there are three kinds of grooves. One you make by raking an implement through a semiresistant substance. One takes hold when a great song plays. And one you get stuck in. Rashid Johnson’s show had them all.

His exhibition, titled “Rumble,” comprised eleven assemblages distributed along the painting-to-sculpture spectrum, plus a short film. Johnson has for several years been making wall-based and freestanding consoles presenting particular kinds of fetishistic objects, like altars crossed with rec-room entertainment centers and boutique displays. Just one piece in the current group—Black Yoga Communication Station (all works 2011), fashioned from blackened steel and reclaimed red-oak flooring—stands in space. Four wall-mounted sculptures are composed of mirrored tiles in geometric patterns. Two of these, plus Communication Station, act as shelving units, serving up totemic tchotchkes similar to those Johnson has used before. Each houses, for example, several copies of a book, in this case identical black-bound hardcovers with titles stamped in gold—Black Yoga (in Communication Station), Negrosis (in the mirrored Glass Jaw, which also incorporates Charles Mingus’s 1957 album The Clown), and Rumble (in another mirror work, The Awakening, the title of which is borrowed from a 1970 Ahmad Jamal Trio album, likewise included). Shatter-marks pock the mirrors. Black Yoga Communication Station stands on a Persian rug and involves a houseplant, as well as a couple of blocky CB radios that rhyme with the blocky books. Here and there are oyster shells filled with yellow shea butter, and all is spattered with a black-soap-and-wax mixture that Johnson calls “Cosmic Slop,” after Funkadelic’s 1973 jam.

As if this luscious, hectic semiosis weren’t enough, the show packed in two more huge, painterly panels of hard Cosmic Slop—Cosmic Slop “Black Orpheus” and Cosmic Slop “The Berlin Conference”—into which Johnson has carved hermetic scribbles. Two cast-bronze panels (Rabbit Punch and Barnburner) are dolloped with Slop, and two large flooring panels are branded with burned-in symbols—a palm tree, crosshairs, and an emblem of the secret society “Boulé,” known as “the Black Skull and Bones.” One of the branded panels, The Sweet Science, hangs on the wall; the other, The Squared Circle, is installed as an actual walk-on floor in the back gallery. So: blobs and geometry, coded social insignia and gestural abstraction, race, power, and stains. Then there’s the boxing angle. Legendary promoter Don King—impresario of the Ali-Foreman fight in the former Zaire in 1974, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle”—once owned the gallery’s town house. Hence Johnson’s titles.

Johnson has impeccable command of tactile relationships. “Rumble” piles on too many references, however, and the works look too much alike. The hand-drawn gouges in the Cosmic Slop read as quotations about urgency rather than urgency itself, and the implied musical grooves are so highly distanced that they flatten into hipster hieroglyphs. This alienated funk is of course (part of) the point, but it risks coming across as calculated, the neatly messed-up objects too much like a line of chic, pre-distressed goods.

The film, The New Black Yoga, is not about yoga at all. Instead, five black-clad young men march down a beach, lay prayer rugs at water’s edge, and perform like wire-fu gods gone back to nature, leaping, kicking, and wielding their shaolin sticks in the honeyed light of a perfect sunset. The sound track is a 1960 recording of Eric Dolphy’s “Improvisations and Tukras,” featuring Gina Lalli’s percussive vocals. Hair swinging, faces serene, sneakers embossing treadmarks in the sand, the martial artists pass through athleticism into romantic kitsch, to emerge as avatars of improbable joy. They’re totally hybrid and weirdly pure, a kick-ass dream-fraternity photographed as if they were mythical dancing girls. Talk about groovy.

Frances Richard