Rashid Johnson At Hauser & Wirth Is A Moving & Thought-Provoking Success

Being totally unfamiliar with Chicago-born artist, Rashid Johnson, I had no idea what to expect from his newly opened solo show at Hauser & Wirth, London. The exhibition, entitled ‘Smile,’ is Johnson’s London solo debut and in my opinion a big success.

Upon walking into the Savile Row space, you are first greeted by in-ignorable wallpaper — the terrifying image of photographer, Elliott Erwitt‘s Smile, plastered in grid form across the walls. The black and white photo, for those who don’t know it, is of a young black boy, grinning widely, whilst holding a gun to his head. The exhibition takes inspiration and of course its’ name from this photo. By using it as wallpaper in Room 1, the viewer is immediately made aware of both the irony and racial undertones inherent throughout Johnson’s work.

Black Man, Bronze panel, black soap, wax (2014)
Black Man, Bronze panel, black soap, wax (2014)

Upon this wallpaper, the artist has hung a series of bronze panels “painted” with Johnson’s signature medium, a combination of black soap and wax. There are also cutouts in the bronze, which not only reveal the wallpaper behind, but also form mask-like faces reminiscent of African tribal masks. Cutouts of palm trees are also present in a few of these works.

In the center of Room 1 is a massive installation entitled Fatherhood.

Fatherhood, Black steel, grow lights, plants, wood, shea butter, books (2014)
Fatherhood, Black steel, grow lights, plants, wood, shea butter, books (2014)

Constructed of stacked steel cubes and flourishing with plants and greenery, the sculpture is also adorned with various household objects, most enticingly a stack of Bill Cosby‘s book on parenting, Fatherhood.

Fatherhood (detail)
Fatherhood (detail)

This is doubly ironic considering the recent demise of Cosby’s once-stellar reputation. The fact that the sexual predator wrote a book on parenting is shocking in itself, and the slap-in-the-face you get from Johnson upon seeing the books and realising the depth of the piece is priceless. I giggled one of those uncomfortable laughs. This was probably my favourite moment of the show.

The back room of the gallery showcases a collection of semi-autobiographical black soap and wax portraits “painted” on tile and all going by the name of Untitled Anxious Men. The texture and detail on these is superb.

Untitled Anxious Men, White ceramic tile, black soap, wax, spray enamel (2014)

Also on view is a shea butter table, which is, as it sounds, a table filled with shea butter. This is a deliberate choice of medium for Johnson, who also features shea butter busts in Fatherhood.  The popular moisturiser originated in Africa and became popular in the US during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, broadly symbolising African American Afrocentricity and racial pride.

Opposite this table hangs a work done on mirrored tile entitled Them. Replete with cracks and scratches and splattered with black soap and wax, this piece to me symbolises how other people can make us see ourselves as vastly flawed. While I don’t know if this was Johnson’s intention at all, looking at my image in the broken and defaced mirror reminded me that often the negative way we may view ourselves is based on others’ abuse.

Them, Mirrored tile, black soap, wax (2014) Plus me tiny, blurry & all bundled up!
Them, Mirrored tile, black soap, wax (2014) Plus me, tiny, blurry & all bundled up!

-India Irving

Rashid Johnson’s ‘Smile’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth until 7th March 2015; 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET; Open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM-6PM; Admission: Free

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