Artist Rashid Johnson’s ‘The Hikers,’ inspired by a Smuggler Mountain walk, opens at Aspen Art Museum
IF YOU GO …
What: Rashid Johnson solo exhibition & ‘The Hikers’
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Through Nov. 3
How much: Free
More info: aspenartmuseum.org
A hike up Smuggler Mountain last year led Aspen Art Museum artist-in-residence Rashid Johnson to a new film project and an unexpected leap into choreography.
The multidisciplinary New York-based artist and filmmaker — also the 2018 recipient of the Aspen Award for Art — headed up the popular local trail with museum director Heidi Zuckerman last summer. Rising above town on the dusty mountain road, he found himself compelled to spin to take it all in. He knew then that he had to make a new art film inspired by Aspen.
“You need the camera to be turning with you, so that you can participate in the grand, 360 quality of the landscape,” Johnson explained Tuesday at the museum, where he was putting final touches on his first ballet and his solo exhibition, which opened Thursday. “On that walk, feeling my own body turn in circles, I was like ‘Yes, film is the best way to help me capture some of that.’”
The result is “The Hikers,” a kinetic 16 mm filmed ballet depicting masked men encountering one another in the upper reaches of Smuggler. The short art film follows a far more high-profile film from Johnson, his directorial feature debut “Native Son,” adapted from Richard Wright’s novel and broadcast on HBO this spring.
The masks used in “The Hikers,” on display in the solo exhibition, are based on Johnson’s “Anxious Men” series of drawings, and the movement of the ballet follows an anxious tone with uneasy and pained movements — accentuated by some discomfiting shots of the eye-like knots in aspen trees — until a few gorgeous moments of union. Johnson shot “The Hikers” on Smuggler in May.
He wasn’t interested in tackling the idea of “Aspen” and its cultural baggage, with all its contradictory and often cartoonish implications. Instead, he wanted to respond to something more fundamental.
“What I’m invested in, beyond societal expectations, is who occupies it, where it is and what it is,” he said. “The protagonists in the film are granted access just to the place and its nature, just what it is, unmolested by what we would consider.”
The audience viewing it over the next four months in the museum might bring readings to it about class or race or, for locals, their own stories from the familiar space of Smuggler. But Johnson isn’t imposing any of that himself.
“You could see the film and think about Thoreau, just walking, just interacting with nature,” he said. “You could think about the ego and the id, about two characters meeting in space, about man versus himself. In that way, it transcends the Aspen-ness of it all.”
He’d heard from locals that hiking Smuggler is “pedestrian,” that there are grander and more far-flung options beyond Aspen’s most popular hike. But, he said, it felt right to set it in the town’s most familiar summertime entry point to nature.
“It’s a hike that feels like a common one, and it feels like an essential walk in this place,” he explained.
Johnson’s gut reaction that film was the ideal medium to respond to his time echoes some of his predecessors in the museum’s residency program. Film has proved a fruitful medium for the museum’s resident artists going back to Javier Tellez’s “Oedipus Marshal,” shot in 2005 at Ashcroft with residents from a local psychiatric facility.
The museum, on Wednesday, also hosted two live performances of the ballet “The Hikers.” Created by Martha Graham Dance Co. members Lloyd Knight and Leslie Andrea Williams, and with choreographer Claudia Shreier, it marked Johnson’s first dance work.
“It’s an incredible vehicle to talk about the human condition,” Johnson said. “Now that we are living in a world that allows artists to experiment, in a post-medium way, I want to take every bit of advantage of that. Because that’s how I want to see the world.”
Ironically, as he premiered the ballet and the hike-based film and dance piece, Johnson himself was making his way around on a knee scooter. He broke a tarsal bone in his foot while playing soccer with his son, which has left him less than mobile.
The performances played out in the main gallery of the exhibition, surrounded by three newly created entries in Johnsons “Escape Collage” series and eight new ceramic and bronze pot works. For Johnson, 42, who began his career as a photographer but has steadily ranged further afield and drawn global acclaim for installation work and his collage-based paintings and drawings, it brought his broad interests together in a single space.
In one gallery space and one film screening room, the show brings together recent strains of Johnson’s work into a single statement. It continues his “Escape Collage” inquiry and also his “Anxious Men” series, along with the series of pots holding palms, cacti and succulents (Johnson informally refers to them as his “pothead” series). The pots each have a face on the front, also inspired by his “Anxious Men” characters.
In each distinct body of work, there is a once a sense both of beauty and of dystopia, of natural grandeur and peace but also fear and anxiety.
The “Escape Collage” series has been evolving for Johnson in recent years as his status as an art-world star has grown. At ArtCrush last summer, one of his “Escape Collage” pieces sold to Troy Carter, the tech entrepreneur and manager for Lady Gaga, for an ArtCrush record $730,000 following a bidding war between Carter and longtime museum supporter Nancy Rogers.
The new “Escape Collage” pieces in the Aspen show intricately patch together materials like broken mirrors, masks, ceramic tiles, black soap applied in spatters and thick drips, with diamond- and eyelet-shaped images of seemingly idyllic scenes reoccurring throughout: beaches, jungles and ocean sunsets. One of the new ones created during Johnson’s Aspen residency also includes embedded images of mountainscapes and snowy peaks along with a grid pattern that unmistakably mimics Shigeru Ban’s woven screen exterior of the Aspen Art Museum.
Two of the new works measure eight-by-10 feet. The third, which served as the backdrop to the ballet performance, measures an overwhelming 10-by-16 feet — the largest scale he’s ever worked on.
“It keeps evolving in terms of the materials that get embedded in the work, things from my past and past bodies of work, and the palette keeps growing with landscapes and masks and different representations of space that have gotten included,” he said of the “Escape Collage” series. “With this body of work I feel like I’m in the woods, in this period of subtle developments — it’s one of the most exciting developments because it speaks to my interest in seriality and how it can be manipulated.”
With just three major new paintings — though they are massive paintings — Johnson recognized that some might expect more work to be included in the show.
“Some people might think of this exhibition as being minimal,” he said. “For me, it’s quite maximal, because of all of the elements and pieces that have brought it to life. … It isn’t necessarily crowded in the way it’s resolved, but to me it’s crowded in the way it’s received.”
The show marks Johnson’s first exhibition since the release of his debut feature film, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son.” It premiered in January at Sundance and was broadcast on HBO this spring.
The collaborative aspect of directing a film — of depending on technical experts, writers and a cast of actors — may have led him to take the leap into dance, he suggested.
“It’s being humbled, and learning and continuing to grow as an artist,” he said. “You get to a certain stage and you have a certain familiarity with a way of working. That can be incredible and I depend on that in my studio — just my knowledge of 20-plus years being trapped in a room with a bunch of materials and having to figure my way out of it. That labor is important to me in my practice and always will be, but to continue to discover ways of working and ways of seeing, where I’m less familiar, can be really effective.”
He recalled the delighted surprise with which “Native Son” director of photography Matthew Libatique — the revered cinematographer behind Darren Aronofsky’s films and last year’s “A Star is Born” — received his visual ideas for the film.
“That’s born out of my naiveté, not my creativity,” Johnson said. “It’s just that I’m willing to do something outside of the parameters that a lot of filmmakers would employ.”
While making “Native Son,” he recalled, members of the cast and the Hollywood crowd would ask him what feature film he was making next. They were a bit baffled when he said he was making an exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum instead of pushing to make another feature film. But he may direct another feature, he said, if he finds the right subject.
“When there is something that needs to be translated on film, when there is another thing that piques my interest that I think will best be resolved through a feature film, I wouldn’t hesitate to make another,” he said.
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