Rashid Johnson's “The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center” | Art review
Rashid Johnson’s private club isn’t part of the old boys’ network. True, he has transformed a normally sterile white-box gallery into a cozy retreat with dark wood paneling and potted plants. And lovely self-portraits of the 31-year-old former Chicagoan (who now lives in New York) dressed up as tennis star Jimmy Connors or reading on a spa-style chaise longue seem to celebrate wealth and leisure. Yet the air is filled not with cigar smoke but incense and the mellow sounds of Sun Ra. Johnson’s site-specific installation turns a space associated with white privilege into a sanctuary for black traditions.
The artist never explains, however, how this ingenious makeover relates to the abstract “starscapes” on the walls. These black-and-white paintings resemble photographs of the Milky Way, yet they’re reverse stencils Johnson makes with culturally significant materials such as black-eyed peas. And while these pieces are formally impressive, it’s unclear how they connect to the other component of the installation: black soap- and wax-covered sculptural altars that support bowls of yellow shea butter (used in Africa as a moisturizer as well as in some religious ceremonies), gold-painted rocks, books about math and blackness, and Al Green’s I’m Still in Love with You on vinyl.
Johnson indeed creates a pleasant “escape” from the West Loop’s gritty streets, though we doubt that’s his primary intent. Unfortunately, this disjointed project doesn’t illuminate the Afro-futurism, “alchemy, divination [and] astronomy” that the gallery assures us the artist is invoking—which makes his ambiguous “club” seem a little too exclusive.