Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Untitled Anxious Red Drawings: Rashid Johnson


Rashid Johnson
“Untitled Anxious Red Drawings,"  (2020)
Oil Stick on Cotton Rag
Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Rashid Johnson
Untitled Anxious Red Drawings
Oil Stick on Rag
2020


Overview:  Rashid Johnson has written thoughtfully for CNN about his recent series, "Untitled Anxious Red Drawings,"  which emerged during the Covid19 lockdown period, at: 

https://www.cnn.com/style/article/rashid-johnson-personal-essay-anxiety/index.html

An online exhibition of the work (now entirely sold out) is on view at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery that represents him, at:

https://www.vip-hauserwirth.com/rashid-johnson-untitled-anxious-red-drawings/

He notes the series emerges out of his longer term Anxious Men series, which has responded to escalating racial violence,  the election of Donald Trump, and other political and personal challenges through black soap and wax on tile portraits

http://www.drawingcenter.org/en/drawingcenter/5/exhibitions/9/upcoming/1129/rashid-johnson-anxious-men/

The Anxious Men series had been entirely black and white, but for the new series, created during the global Covid-19 pandemic, Johnson prioritizes red oil stick on wax paper or rag.  As in some of the earlier Untitled Anxious work, the works repeat a basic motif of two solid upright ellipses, sometimes touching, something apart, within a grid or series of squares in rows and columns. At times these squares are obscured by extended fields of red. The artists notes that red, the dominant color of the series, evokes for him both anxiety and blood.

Rashid Johnson at work

Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
Pamela Allara: In discussing his latest body of work, Rashid Johnson has observed that they are an unusually direct response to the world at present, a ‘radical time’ as he puts it, which has provided “proof of how despicable inequality is and how it functions." His previous “Anxious Men” series were similarly structured, the motif of several heads contained within a rectangle repeated across the surface of the drawings. However, the heads in “Anxious Men” were based on self-portraits, whereas the facial features have been removed in the current series, or as he has put it, are being lost in the pigment, a deep red that signals urgency, blood and alarm to the artist. Although featureless, the ovals still read as heads, or perhaps as both heads and stomachs. The harried strokes and strong color directly convey the artist’s anxieties both in his mind and in his body.

Mark Auslander:  Although, as Pam notes, these are transformations of the Anxious Men series, which long predates the Covid-19 crisis, these new striking red-imaged works seem to speak directly to our current moment of uncertainty and danger.  Perhaps we are glimpsing into an apartment building's windows, filled with couples confined together for the duration of the Lockdown, in various stages of emotional proximity and distance, the red redolent of the enormous, urgent sense of crisis that surrounds their every moment. Or, even more ominously, we might be gazing into the hospital rooms, the makeshift refrigerator truck serving as temporary morgues,  or even the mass graves that have become such prominent (if at times hidden) features of New York City's experience as an epicenter of the pandemic. They seem especially redolent of the lines of incarcerated people, primarily persons of color, at serious risk for infection; it is hard not to think of the infamous diagrams of the Middle Passage, of newly enslaved persons crammed into the holds of slave ships, enduring unimaginable suffering and pestilence on the journey to the New World. 

We might, alternately, be looking into the lungs of the afflicted, as the invading virus binds to the cells in the pulmonary tract or elsewhere in the body, hijacking them into microscopic factories reproducing the pathogenic RNA that proliferates through the body, compromising the pulmonary system's ability to transfer life-giving oxygen into the bloodstream.  Hence, we see row after row of a replicated core image, a nightmare of uncontrolled reproduction and transmission.

Rashid Johnson
“Untitled Anxious Red Drawings,"  (2020)
Oil Stick on Cotton Rag
Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
Or perhaps each square with two paired circular elements could be conceived of as a mind in internal, worried dialogue with itself (or as Pam suggests, the mind speaking to its own body), an inward-directed conversation that insistently repeats itself, again and again and again, from which there is no awakening. Although the series was completed before the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia became widely known,  in part through an endlessly replayed viral video, Johnson's series now seems highly appropriate to denouncing forms of racial terror and white vigilantism that seem to have been re-authorized during this period of crisis. A man was lynched today.  Just as he was yesterday.

The repeated motif of the two ellipses in a square, may be evocative of a stamp, pressed again and again on cloth, perhaps a funeral shroud of sorts that bears traces of terrible loss.  Whatever the precise referent, the ultimate sense conveyed is of a round of repetition, harsh and insistent, which infuses our every waking and sleeping moment. As such, these red works, taken together, comprise a vivid journal of our plague year, written in the blood that bleeds from the city's endless wounds.

Avis Williams: Rashid Johnson's new work speaks to me in a profound communal way.  I see black men lined behind bars and in the cells of life that Injustice and discriminatory practices have prescribed. They've been and are similar in shape, looking like my brothers, ones cast aside by those in power.  Yet in Jesus Christ, even in situations of hopelessness and despair, the blood of innocent victims, covers their faces and bodies.  Yet in Christ Jesus, there is a hope that light will shine in and out of bloody darkness. Life tries and intends to crush and destroy all in the way of white Supremacy.   I'm reminded of the old hymn of the black Church that we grew up singing and listening to: "I Know it was the Blood".  It is the blood of the crucified and resurrected Christ that covers and saved us.

 I am so hopeful in this time that The Lord hears the cries of those slaughtered because of the color of their skin.

Rev. Dr. Avis Williams, DM  a Baptist pastor and community organizer living in Covington, GA, received her Doctor of Ministry from Emory University's Candler School of Theology in 2018.


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