On a balmy Saturday night on the tiny island of Menorca off the coast of Spain, visiting art-worlders mixed with residents to raise a ointment-a local favorite gin and lemon elixir – to Rashid Johnson. The 45-year-old Chicago-born, New York-based artist was there to open his latest solo show, “Rashid Johnson: Sodade,” with mega-gallery Hauser and Wirth.
The gathering, held immediately at the back of Art Basel, was the first full-scale event the gallery was able to hold at its Mediterranean island site, which opened last year during the pandemic. Some 600 guests flocked to Isla del Rei, the site of a disused 18th-century naval hospital, which Hauser and Wirth transformed into a 16,000-square-foot gallery, gift shop and restaurant.
The artist taking center stage has become something of a market star thanks to the popularity of his “anxious men” series, frenetically repetitive gesture paintings of abstract faces in various hues. The works struck a chord with buyers for their ability to simultaneously speak to the anxieties of our current moment and connect to historical movements in art such as Abstract Expressionism.
The exhibition, Johnson’s first solo show in Spain, takes its title from a Creole word derived from the Portuguese “saudade”, popularized in the 1950s by a song by Cape Verdean musician Cesária Évora. It’s a ballad about homesickness, which also contains a note of resilience – of hope in building something new in the face of loss, just as creole languages themselves evolved in defiance of language. of their oppressors.
By borrowing it, Johnson commits to a critical history and with stories around migration and travel, especially around the ocean, touching on everything from the transatlantic slave trade to the contemporary migration crisis.
The exhibition includes 14 new paintings and four sculptures, all made within the past two years. The bronze sculptures are the most revealing. Cast from clay, their hollowed-out shapes are reminiscent of rowing boats, but are actually – and perhaps conveniently, for collectors looking to revamp their summer gardens – functional hearths, referring to the vessels used as pyres in funeral rituals around the world.
They were integrated with found objects that are important to the artist, from VHS tapes to books to a radio, which Johnson says was a reference to the citizens group’s radio. Her father used the short-range two-way communication device, but in the days of Black Lives Matter, the object also evokes the look of police radios, often used to harm and harass black communities.
The same ambiguity pervades the presence of oyster shells in the works, which Johnson says is a reference to Zora Neale Hurston’s essay. How does it feel to be colored, in which she wrote, “No, I’m not crying over the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” The artist said, somewhat cryptically, that he was drawn to the duality between the aggressive notion of sharpening a knife and the opulence of using it to eat oysters.
The symbolism of boat shapes is echoed in crescent-shaped “seascape” paintings, inspired by Johnson’s time living in the Hamptons of Long Island during the pandemic. For these, Johnson swapped his familiar materials such as shea butter and black soap for oil paint, which he wiped and scraped in thick coats of blue and white.
These are joined by new iterations of Johnson’s well-known ‘anxious men’ motifs, two-tone paintings done with white oil paint on raw canvas. The artist refers to these faded ghostly images as “abandonment” paintings, and they quickly become as coveted as previous variations on the theme (the gallery sold one at Art Basel this year for $975,000).
These works, which he says evoke acceptance and reconciliation, are a natural follow-up to the previous iteration of black and blue works begun in 2021, which Johnson calls his “blue” paintings, suggesting damage as well as the healing. A series of these are also visible in the exhibition, although the more violent red paintings created at the start of the pandemic are not present.
Overall, the exhibition is full of attractive, albeit widely expected, works from a commercial gallery. Along the way, we are constantly reminded that the space is keen to be seen more as a museum than a gallery, and one wonders why he hasn’t curated a mini-retrospective that would give a better sense of what Johnson’s challenging work is, rather than just marketing new pieces. One wonders what Johnson, who made a jovial appearance at her party, thinks of all this. But then again, he may be too busy sharpening his oyster knife.
“Rachid Johnson. sodais on view until November 13 in Hauser and Wirth, Menorca.
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