Viscous black liquids cascade down the picture planes as scrawled drawings of agonized grimaces and anxious eyes confront the viewer at every turn. Indeed, Brooklyn-based multimedia artist Rashid Johnson’s current David Kordansky exhibition, The Rainbow Sign is a masterclass in haunting and subtly violent imagery. Extracting its title from an often-cited passage in James Baldwin’s 1963 bestseller, The Fire Next Time, this eclectic collection of wall sculptures, ceramic cups, mosaic portraits, and psychedelic collages presents a poignant reflection on notions of cultural identity and protest.
After a flirtation with black and white portrait photography early in his career, Johnson is currently exploring themes of African-American culture and history through highly conceptual sculpture and assemblage pieces. Over the past decade, the artist’s work has become synonymous with the unification of gestural Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual art. The viewer can easily spot this fusion of forms within his Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell-inspired wall-sculptures on display here. These monumental works are broken up into a handful of smaller sections, each boasting a unique aesthetic feature. For example, we see one section in each sculpture filled with a roughly molded yellow solid. Through supplementary information, we learn that this substance is shea butter, a beloved cure-all moisturizer originally found in West African countries. Not only does the eye here connect the mounds and depressions in the surface with traditional sculpture, but also we begin to understand Johnson’s social message with the use of this material. The artist explains, “When I was younger, I would see shea butter being sold on the street, and I was interested in how people were still coating themselves in the theater of Africanism.” Although the members of his community were thousands of miles of away from African shores, they still felt a nostalgic pull towards the beauty rituals of their homeland.
Continuing with this theme, other sections within Johnson’s wall sculptures feature abstract gestures made from a mixture of African black soap and wax. While these drizzled, weeping marks tip their hat to both Abstract Expressionism and graffiti, they also pay homage to this other West African beauty staple. In other sections of the wall sculptures, Johnson employs this concoction to depict Basquiat-like faces. He carves these panicked expressions with swirling, chaotic strokes. The inky blackness of this mixture also recalls the written word and literature. Johnson confirms this connection by also including stacks of books by African-American authors in these wall sculptures. Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout are featured prominently here. While they all speak about racial injustice in the United States, Beatty’s 2015 satirical novel tells the tale of a man who tries to reinstate segregation and own a slave in modern-day Los Angeles. Johnson weaves these chilling narratives throughout his combines and lays out racial bias for all the world to see. It is plain as day and black and white, just like the scraps of zebra skin displayed in the corner sections of these wall pieces.
Also throughout these wall sculptures, the viewer finds bronze mesh panels which allow the works to become actual working microphones. Johnson is fascinated by ideas of voice amplification and starting important conversations, both of which are vital in any democracy. However, as the United States is currently experiencing a period of social unrest and protest, this need to express oneself becomes all the more crucial.
Within this same gallery, visitors will find scores of kiln-fired pots. Almost childlike in their imperfections, these glazed ceramics feature muddy gestural drips similar the ones seen in the wall sculptures. Greatly inspired by modernist ceramics, Johnson sets these works apart by intending them to represent the human body. These decorative drips and designs imbue each pot with a palpable sense of individuality. However, they are displayed here without care or fanfare as if they are for bargain bin items. With this carelessness in their presentation, the viewer soon realizes that Johnson is evoking the horrors of slavery here.
Also on display in this exhibition are Johnson’s Broken Men. This new body of work features jagged, misshapen ceramic and mirrored tiles. Together, they form portraits eerily similar to the pained expressions seen in the wall sculptures. Although bright and colorful, these mosaics are also rigid and performative. They resemble African masks and unsuccessfully try to conceal an underlying sense of despair, tragedy, and pain. The viewer here begins to comprehend this idea of shattered freedom and hope through these abyss-like eyes and contorted mouths.
Through The Rainbow Sign, Johnson teaches the viewer that vivid color and external embellishment does not always mean inner peace and joy. In fact, he claims that even a rainbow, an age-old symbol of tranquility, beauty, and harmony, can also be a harbinger of violence and destruction. The artist calls our attention to the Biblical passage referenced in the antebellum spiritual Mary, Don’t You Weep and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!” These compositions claim that the prism of light shown to Noah after the flood was not a sign that God’s attempt to destroy humanity was over, but symbolized a mere interlude. It was a warning that He will cleanse the Earth with hellfire the next time around. This ancestral song and potent essay compare humankind’s penchant for sin with the American issue of racial oppression and prejudice. Here, Johnson urges humanity to address these matters and overcome this long-standing hatred.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.