Rashid Johnson: Smile

Hiding amidst the bustling and swanky street of Saville Row, a jungle of potted plants, tube lights and stack piled books has rooted itself in the house of Hauser & Wirth. This display is Rashid Johnson’s first solo exhibition at the gallery in London, and comes as a bold outlook on the artist’s memories and feelings about class, race and childhood.

The white cube space of Hauser & Wirth has been transformed for Johnson’s exhibition. Instead of maintaining a clinical white space, Johnson has chosen to confront viewers with the repetitive, sinister print of Elliott Erwitt’s Pittsburgh (Black boy with gun to his head) (1950) plastered in wallpaper fashion throughout the gallery. After taking in the disturbed image, it becomes clear where Johnson’s exhibition title, Smile, took inspiration from. The push and pull between uneasy concern and morbid humour in this image is something Johnson’s practice has come to focus on, regularly referencing the simultaneous tension of opposing feelings.

Rashid Johnson

The second work to immediately capture gallery-goers attention is Johnson’s centred installation piece Fatherhood (2014). This Jenga-esque frame hollows out to create shelves in order to display a mix of houseplants, books including Bill Cosby’s ‘Fatherhood’, and several shea butter sculptures – combining to form a jumbled jungle of Johnson’s personal effects and artistic creations. This installation piece draws influence from Sol LeWitt’s sculptural practice – the raw, grid frame as a conceptualist ideal – but also from Johnson’s own history, highlighting both personal and wider socio-cultural concerns the artist delves into.

Several bronze works edge around the central Fatherhood installation. These glimmering gold pieces depict abstract portraiture through rich, lavish layers of wax and black soap – an artistic practice Johnson has become recognised for. The everlasting medium of bronze is important to Johnson because of its undertone connection with the idea of maintaining the past and permanently capturing memories in physical form. Other works include further abstract portraits pressed upon backdrops of ceramic, white tiles – another concoction made from black soap and wax.

Rashid Johnson’s exhibition is an inquisitive demonstration of the artist’s view on memory and his own social history. The solitary composition of Johnson’s work, and the morose, black humour of the exhibition space allows for a truly haunting yet absorbing experience. Smile is on display at Hauser & Wirth London, South Gallery until the 7 March 2015.

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