Rashid Johnson was sitting in the path of an industrial fan that hummed loudly in his un-air-conditioned studio on Stagg Street in Bushwick. It was 10 in the morning and already approaching 80 degrees. He had a patchy beard and a head of long dread locks that he periodically tied in a ponytail and then released. In the front of his studio, two assistants were sawing wood and making careful measurements for an exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art next April. Behind Mr. Johnson was one of his artworks, a set of glass shelves on which were arrayed several objects that recur in his work: a bar of black soap, shea butter, and a 33 1/3 rpm record, propped up so that its cover was visible. This one was the soundtrack to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the 1971 film starring Melvin Van Peebles. In it, Mr. Van Peebles (Sweetback) kills a white cop and flees to Mexico. The film is “dedicated to the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.”
“I am interested in something to put something on,” Mr. Johnson said, Mr. Van Peebles’s face, cast in shadows, looking pained behind him. “Like a vehicle that could marry contradictory symbols and signifiers so that they’re occupying the same space.”
This kind of miscegenation is key to Mr. Johnson’s style, which is spread out over media and topics. Race is always at issue, but the work makes the viewer question its importance even as it shoves it in his face. One piece is simply a basketball jersey with the words “White People Love Me” printed on it. Mr. Johnson subverts race through the presentation of it.
This October, his work will go on view at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, as part of “30 Americans,” an exhibition that debuted at Miami’s Rubell Family Collection three years ago. In that show, his work appears alongside heavyweights like Glenn Ligon, whose recent mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum had us thinking about race again through work that is as confrontational, and often as humorous, as it is stylistically different from Mr. Johnson’s.
“30 Americans” is only the most recent entry among exhibitions that anthologize African American artists working today. It isn’t the first of these that Mr. Johnson has been included in. “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem helped launch his career in 2001 by featuring “Seeing in the Dark,” his series of portraits of down-and-out African American men living in Chicago. Mr. Johnson photographed his subjects up close, exposing every line in their faces, which emerge ominously out of a pitch-black backdrop. The light and shadow are tense rather than complimentary; each image is grave, almost comically intimate.
This was the exhibition that famously brought the term “post-black” to the consciousness of the public. In her catalog essay, Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum’s director, said the term originated from her “absurd uses of language” with Mr. Ligon.
“‘Post-black’ was shorthand for post-black art,” she wrote, “which was shorthand for a discourse that could fill volumes. To approach a conversation about ‘black art’ ultimately meant embracing and rejecting the notion of such a thing at the very same time. It was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested in redefining complex notions of blackness.”
Rashid Johnson, 33, was born in the Chicago suburbs. His mother was a poet and a professor of history at Loyola. His father had a CV radio electronics company. Growing up, he said he didn’t see much difference between his mother’s poetry and his father’s electronics. Both were speaking out anonymously, one through the veil of a poetic narrator, the other by producing an object designed for that exact purpose.
When he was young, his parents were Afro-centric. He remembers his mother wearing dashikis. They celebrated Kwanzaa and other “unofficial holidays,” as he puts it, until one day, “they just kind of stopped being Afro-centric. And it’s really strange being raised in this environment that kind of embraces this neo-African identity and then all of a sudden, it’s, like, gone, and you’re kind of abandoning it and thrown into the world trying to negotiate this thing you were raised in. It’s almost like being Jewish, being Bar Mitvahed, and then on your 14th birthday, they say, oh yeah, we’re not Jews anymore.”
Like the loaded symbols resting on the shelf in his studio, race floats around in Mr. Johnson’s work with no real referent. In a vitriolic recent essay on the lack of originality at the Venice Biennale, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote, “Rashid Johnson’s mirrored assemblages have luscious physicality but are marred by their reliance on familiar mementos drawn from the recent past,” dismissing Mr. Johnson as a rip-off of Carol Bove, an artist primarily known for sculptures that consist of books placed in careful juxtaposition on shelves.
But that misses the point. The “past” in Mr. Johnson’s work is distorted and reappropriated into nonrecognition. For his 2008 exhibition at New York’s Nicole Klagsburn Gallery, “The Dead Lecturer” (named for a book of poems by another influence, LeRoi Jones), he created a fictional secret society, the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club. The gallery was adorned with portraits of black men in suits and ties, their faces obscured in smoke and their context remaining unknown, creating a kind of counterhistory in which all the blanks had to be filled in by the viewer.
For an untitled piece in his 2007 exhibition “Dark Matters,” he sprinkled black-eyed peas onto polyester cloths, spray painted them black and then shook off the peas so that the fabric looked luxuriously embroidered. In many pieces, he’ll place shea butter on a prominent shelf, like religious iconography meant to be worshiped. He likes the idea of “coating one’s self in Africanness.” His work is a catalog of influences that he lays bare in front of the viewer: it is no accident that an altar is the object his shelf-based artworks most closely resemble.
In his studio, Mr. Johnson recalled the photo series he showed in “Freestyle.” He refrained from calling his subjects “homeless,” preferring instead “in transition.” He said he wanted people to “see men, not homeless men.”
“What I came to realize in the subsequent response to the work was that people just completely avoided the discourse around class,” Mr. Johnson said. “They took on this conversation that they projected onto the pictures about race. They never discussed the problematic of my class separation from these people; they discussed their own difficulty with the race aspect that these were poor black men. And I always thought that was interesting.”
Asked recently to discuss the term “post black,” Ms. Golden said it was a way of framing the “Freestyle” exhibition in particular. But it is a term that contemporary black artists, Mr. Johnson included, are still grappling with. When asked what she thought about the term’s appropriation in describing contemporary black art in general, Ms. Golden replied, “I don’t have any thoughts on that.”
Mr. Johnson does not admonish the label, but says it is evolving. He mentioned an essay by James Baldwin where a black poet tells the writer, “I want to be a poet, not a black poet.” Baldwin tells him it sounds more like he wants to be a white poet.
“It’s this idea of not being ghettoized,” Mr. Johnson said, “But I think it’s very important to consider what you think of as a ghetto.”