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Review: Rashid Johnson's Message at the Kemper

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2013 - In Message to our Folks at Washington University’s Kemper Museum, Rashid Johnson toys with his affection for the Afrocentrism that shaped his family life throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

Johnson makes light use of heavy subjects. Smooth jazz and moon rock, chicken bones and the dashiki become cultural signifiers in his art. Johnson wryly takes on iconic modern and contemporary art practices to celebrate commonly accessible African-American voices, like comedian Dick Gregory or Public Enemy, to more obscure cultural critics, such as afro-futurist musician Sun Ra.

But Johnson’s monographic exhibition is as much about growing up in a highly intellectual family as it is about growing up in a family inspired by Afrocentric ideology. Johnson’s emblems of blackness are also emblems of serious nerdiness. Just look at the book titles lined up on his shelf installations! - Neil deGrasse Tyson, W.E.B. Du Bois. The critical theory in which the Johnson family steeped young Rashid is exactly the kind of upbringing that would produce the complex, reflective critique found throughout the artist’s work.

Johnson has offered the home décor he grew up with as a setting to place the books, music and other artifacts that formed his coming-of-age experience. The mirror tiled shelving, bronze knickknacks and houseplants on display in Triple Consciousness articulate Johnson’s nostalgic recollection of an era. The nostalgia for that era and feelings of loss at its ending are understandable.

Johnson has honed in on something that almost everyone can understand. Discovering the malleability of one’s personal history can be disconcerting. His recollection of self-consciously enacted family Kwanza celebrations abruptly ending (as Johnson recounts when describing his childhood) is not unlike every child’s experiences of disruptions that come, one way or another, during the fast-changing years of adolescence. Every child lucky enough to grow up in a family as involved in defining itself and its place in the world as Johnson’s appears to have been experiences disturbances in that family culture as jarring.

The exhibit title refers to a 1969 jazz album, not as a statement for Mom and Dad Johnson. Though, assumptions of the latter meaning are justified. The Johnson family culture is firmly on display here; and it comes off well, not just for the deep intellectual prodding that shaped Rashid’s early years, but for the freedom and ingenuity with which adult Rashid furthers racial discourse.

The exhibit now at the Kemper displays the remarkable scope of artistic expression that Johnson employs in that conversation. The exhibit could fairly have been titled A History of Modern and Contemporary Art as interpreted by Rashid Johnson. From the gestural abstraction painting of Cosmic Slop “Black Orpheus” (in which black soap and wax are slathered in high relief) to the arcane photographic processes used to make lines of feet look like dental x-rays in Untitled, Manumission Papers, Johnson does it all. His video, sculpture, installation and painted works are all much more than technical one-offs. Each is an endearingly accessible, discrete endeavor charged with fresh optimism and conspicuous intellectual prowess.

Note: Sarah Hermes Griesbach is a graduate student at Washington University who has worked with the Kemper.

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