contemporary art curator. writer. cultural critic
Hail We Now Sing Joy features work by Chicago-born, New York-based artist Rashid Johnson including sculpture, installation, and the Kansas City debut of new large-scale mixed-media wall pieces. Each space within the exhibition reveals complexly layered works, both in imagery and material, that build upon Johnson’s themes of anxiety, escape, and identity.
Hail We Now Sing Joy brings together the rich imagery and material that has been present in Rashid Johnson’s (b. 1977) work for decades. Gathering themes of history, identity, anxiety, and escape, Johnson applies his investigations using visual language to present new messages in our current societal context.
The exhibition includes Anxious Audience, Johnson’s large-scale white ceramic tile panels covered with dozens of agitated faces, scrawled in black soap and wax, whose distressed expressions are reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s figures. The new Falling Men works, in which Johnson uses his signature materials of ceramic tile, red oak flooring, mirror fragments, and black soap and wax splatters, reveal inverted falling figures. They can be read as flying heroes, early video game figures, or chalk outlines of deceased bodies from crime scenes. These works surround Untitled (shea butter table), a massive walnut table branded with ambiguous symbols. A lopsidedly placed Persian rug partially hides the burn marks and is covered with a grouping of large blocks of solid shea butter that look as if they are in process, meant to reflect the working space of the artist’s studio.
The Escape Collages—large-scale diamond-cut vinyl images of lush tropical environments atop a Piet Mondrian-style grid of red, yellow, black, and blue tiles—are some of Johnson’s most intricately layered works and introduce an expanded palette into his practice. The underlying linear tropes pay homage to Johnson’s interest in the art historical period of Modernism, which is again reflected in Antoine’s Organ, Johnson’s newest sculptural installation. The largest of his architectural grid works ever shown in the United States, this towering minimalist structure is bursting with hundreds of potted plants, videos, lights, and sculptures, creating a lush oasis that engages the audience with live and recorded music, literature, and video, transitioning the anxiety expressed in other works in the exhibition into growth and action.
The exhibition’s title, Hail We Now Sing Joy, is also a music track by musician and composer Joseph Jarman for The Meeting, a jazz reunion album released in 2003 by Art Ensemble of Chicago. In his review of the album, Kurt Gottschalk talks of “Hail We Now Sing Joy” and other songs not as a reunion (since the band members have come and gone and come back again over the years) but a “meeting” in the true spirit of jazz. This sentiment is strongly felt in the meeting of personal and universal themes held together in Johnson’s body of work and are synonymous with both our past and present cultural, social, and political climate.
RASHID JOHNSON | INTERPRETIVE EDUCATION SPACE