Rashid Johnson: Islands
David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
September 13 -- October 29, 2014
By LYLE ZIMSKIND, OCT. 2014
Rashid Johnson’s exhibition Islands creates highly contrasting environments in the two rooms of the expansive new David Kordansky Gallery building on S. La Brea. The first area is occupied by a monumental “ruin,” the structural simulacrum of an ancient wonder assembled on site. The second room presents two series of discrete objects, one on the walls surrounding the space and another lined up along an axis in the center of the gallery floor.
Plateaus, the fifteen foot-tall quasi-pyramid in the first room is constructed of identical skeletal steel-beam cubes piled and welded together. Because the structure has no outer walls, the gaps between the beams allow us to easily peer into and past its inner core. Inside and out, Johnson’s tower is laden with lamps, rugs, and urns as well as the CB radios and blocks of shea butter that have been a common thematic feature in his work. Copies of Richard Wright’s seminal African-American coming-of-age novel Native Son, in various editions, are neatly stacked in several locations around the edifice (the artist himself is also a native son of Chicago, where the book is set). Most striking, though, is the abundance of plant life everywhere which, although it is all growing in pots, appears intrinsic to, and even rooted in, the primary network of steel scaffolds.
A new contextual forum for displaying the autobiographically resonant elements that Johnson frequently selected to identify himself in his young career, Plateaus might easily be viewed as the artist’s own early monument to himself. A more interesting take, though, is to read the work as a conceptual refutation of John Donne’s oft-cited declaration that “no man is an island,” -- thus representing a self-portrait embodied in an accumulation of objects and experiences.
The wall pieces in the other room are irregularly shaped configurations of wooden floor planks covered with graffiti-like marks and thick applications of black soap (another of Johnson’s hallmark materials). Attached shelves hold an array of objects, including more plants, small dishes of shea butter, and CB radios, as well as unique items. Centering each of these constructed units is a classic jazz LP album cover. The books displayed on the shelves vary more widely than in Plateaus, including one opened to display photographer Elliott Erwitt’s shocking mid-century portrait of a young black male smiling broadly as he holds a gun to his own head.
Arranged along a straight line in the center of this second room is a striking group of tables, each topped by a sheet of clear glass lain directly over a slab of congealed shea butter marked up with cartographic abstract carvings. No less idiosyncratic than the pyramid, these tables radically re-situate material familiar from Johnson’s earlier work. Yet where Plateaus is an austere island that can be approached but not entered, these tables seem inviting, ready to be gathered around, like isles of refuge from the personal and social fervor emanating from the pieces on the wall. WM
Lyle Zimskind writes about arts and culture for Los Angeles magazine and LAist.com and has contributed to the LA Review of Books, New York Newsday and KCET Artbound. He is also a former Managing Editor of the Czech Republic edition of Esquire magazine.