Rashid Johnson's new show, Dark Matters, hits Seattle like a meteorite. When's the last time you saw a show of fast, funny, heady art about race in this city? It's about art history, too, and shea butter.
In an informal talk on opening night, Johnson charmed a white crowd with a lone black guy standing in a corner. "White People Love Me," reads a basketball jersey Johnson once made as a work of art. I think we viewers are supposed to be aware of the way we relate to his work or don't, the way we fetishize art and artists to the same degree we fetishize races—but I can't be sure. He covers his tracks with humor and footnotes.
Back to the shea butter: It appears in two of the six works at James Harris Gallery. (This is Johnson's first solo show at James Harris, and five of the six works are new.) One is Shea Butter Monolith.
It's two huge, congruent rectangular mirrors, one leaning against the wall and the other lying on the floor. A tall birch plank resting on the mirrors is coated in rough yellow shea butter and beeswax. Like Johnson's Cocoa Butter Cylinder (NBA Regulation Height) from 2003, it's an attractive entry in the popular category of classic white-guy minimalism perverted.
Shea butter, the extract from a fruit tree that grows in western Africa, is a salve and an African export. Johnson's 2004 video starts with a jaunty horn jingle that sounds familiar. As the music plays, the title appears: "Me, Tavis Smiley & Shea Butter."
Johnson, sitting on a toilet wearing boxers, rubs the lotion on his chest and arms as Smiley discusses the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which declared segregation unconstitutional. The piece is timely again now, since the court recently ruled that it is also unconstitutional for high schools to consider race in admission decisions. You can't hurt people because of their race in this country, and you can't help them, either. It's a standard of objectivity that seems absurd enough to inspire you to do nothing but sit in your bathroom at home and apply some African lotion.
Johnson leans heavily on wordplay. In the title piece, the words "Dark Matters" are spray-painted in layers of black and white across a mirror. References peel off the phrase easily—to scholar Cornel West's bestseller Race Matters, to recent anthologies of Afrofuturist writing that use the title "Dark Matter," and to dark matter itself, the unknowable stuff that physicists say is holding the universe together.
Across the room is a giant, close-up portrait—Johnson's work is egotistical—of a black astrophysicist's face emerging from darkness. The photograph is too close; the man's hairs are all out in the open and on the surface, unlike the subjects he studies. It's called The Brother with Knowledge of Other Planets, which brings to mind George Clinton calling to his "Afronauts" and the 1984 John Sayles movie The Brother from Another Planet. (As an aside: Johnson says the astrophysicist he photographed is Orson Trotman, but Trotman, even in various spellings, shows up nowhere on Google. Does he exist?)
Another photograph is also painting-size, and depicts a nude woman. Her skin still shows the red impressions of her bra's underwire, and her expression is like the Cheshire cat's. Other than a model's robe draped archly over a screen, her entire environment is white. The photograph is titled—another doozy—White Girl. You can almost hear Western art come to its knees. I found it hilarious.
If Johnson is associated with any word or movement, it's "postblack." That's what Thelma Golden called the 28 black postmodern artists she put in Freestyle, a 2001 show at the Studio Museum in Harlem that launched the now-29-year-old Johnson's career.
At his talk in Seattle, Johnson explained that for him the label means art beyond victimhood, beyond a didactic approach. That's a gracious reading, but being a "postblack" artist would seem difficult since nobody calls himself a postblack person. Johnson works the same way any postmodern conceptualist does, by bringing smart and interesting subjects together. The proliferation of references in his work can feel like hovering as opposed to landing, but in several cases, the view is so good you realize you've forgotten you were trying to get anywhere at all.
And then there's a work in the show unlike any of the others. It's untitled. Three pieces of shiny fabric speckled gold and black are hung on hidden hooks on a black wall. He spray-painted the gold fabric black while beans, rice, spices, and black-eyed peas were scattered on it, acting as reverse stencils. You don't need to know how they were made to wonder at these star showers, but when you do, it becomes a sublime process piece, a modest and majestic bit of otherworldly firstname.lastname@example.org