Aspen Award for Art winner Rashid Johnson prepares for ‘Native Son’ adaptation, Aspen exhibition next year
August 4, 2018
Rashid Johnson is looking ahead to a big 2019.
Along with making his debut as a feature film director with a much-anticipated adaptation of Richard Wright's novel "Native Son," next year the artist will stage a solo exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum.
The museum this weekend honored Johnson with the Aspen Award for Art. On Thursday, Johnson addressed a capacity crowd in the rooftop sculpture garden at the museum, discussing his career as an artist, his upcoming film and his 2019 Aspen show.
Johnson, 41, softened up the crowd immediately with a quip about legal marijuana: "I'm going to speak slowly because I'm assuming most of you are all on edibles."
A Chicago native, Johnson broke out on the international art scene as a photographer while he was still in college and has since then built an acclaimed cross-disciplinary practice that moves among sculpture, painting, installation, sound and video. In 2014, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver hosted Johnson's solo exhibition "New Growth."
A recent show in Marfa, Texas, included an irrigation system that spread shea butter on the dry desert ground. Johnson said Thursday that the piece was an extreme example of his interest in responding to the settings where his art is exhibited.
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"That's ridiculous," he said with a laugh. "But that's what art is."
The new works that will be included in next July's Aspen show, he suggested, might respond to the environment here in the mountains.
"The show we're working on here, the conversation we've been having is very much about place," he said. "What is this place? What does it look like?"
An auction at the museum's ArtCrush fundraiser this weekend included Johnson's new "Untitled Escape Collage," a massive 8-foot-tall and 10-foot-wide collage of wooden masks, ceramic tiles and signature Johnson materials like black soap. Bids for the donated piece were to begin at $285,000.
Johnson has often been categorized as a "post-black" conceptual artist, but in Thursday's talk with Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman he said his creative concerns range well beyond racial identity.
"If you can name an 'ism,' then I am probably concerned about that ism," he said.
Johnson's adaptation of "Native Son" finished filming this spring in Chicago.
"It's more direct in its narrative approach than anything I've ever made," he said of this first experience as a filmmaker. "But it shares with the rest of my work this idea of not having a specific kind of antagonist. … In my story, the antagonist becomes the collective 'us.'"
Published in 1940, the novel examines institutional racism and poverty while following a young black man, Bigger Thomas, after he kills a white woman. The morally ambiguous protagonist, Johnson said, was an ideal fit for him as a storyteller.
"There's nobody specifically to blame in my work," he said. "I don't think of the condition of any group being a direct result of any action of any group. … I don't like the idea that fingers get pointed in very direct ways, because I don't think that is an opportunity to resolve problems."
Johnson cast Ashton Sanders, who played the teenaged Chiron in the Oscar-winning drama "Moonlight," to play the lead role in "Native Son."
"I didn't want to cast a big strong guy," Johnson said. "I wanted to cast a thin guy. This guy, when you see him you say, 'Oh, he is fragile.' … It's not often as black males that we get to negotiate this idea of fragility. We see these examples of strength and they often take the form of these guys who are 6' 8' and 250 pounds, right?"
Johnson pushed back against the notion that the tumult of our historical moment will create great works of art.
"I don't think artists need to be as lazy as to think they need calamity to make something interesting," he said.
He argued that topical art and overtly political art rarely lasts, while the truly meaningful works are those whose messages seep into the culture over the course of decades. He pointed as an example to James Baldwin's nonfiction book "The Fire Next Time" and the influence it wields in 2018 more than five decades since publication.
Before his solo show in Aspen next year, Johnson will have a piece on view here in December: his neon light text work, "Run," which simply displays the word in glowing cursive. It is, he said, an example of how he often puts the meaning of his work explicitly on the surface. In this case, it's an alarm.
"If someone stood up and told you to run, you would be concerned," he said.
That work will be included in a group show at the Aspen Art Museum titled "Zombies: Pay Attention!" riffing on the undead in pop culture.
Zuckerman, the museum director, laughed as she revealed the premise of the show to the audience, which led to questions about humor in Johnson's work. He said he was deeply influenced by "Chappelle's Show" and said that he's found if he can make someone laugh with an artwork he has a much better chance of reaching them.
"It starts to unwind this big bag of problems that my work is negotiating and give you agency and opportunity," he said, later adding: "If I can provide clues and bread crumbs and start to address some of the concerns that any viewer who comes in the space might have, then I've created a space for them to participate."
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