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Rashid Johnson: Blurring the lines of student race art

“We know it and we can see it, and to be honest, I’ve been really disappointed by a lot of the work I’ve been seeing from African- American artists of my generation. And not to impute the generation before mine, but I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the stuff I see.”

By Arts & Culture

Why would an emerging artist return to school?

The art world is a tough business. Competition is fierce and originality can be hard to come by. The process of gaining recognition can take quite a long time and, for those who happen to make it, its benefits can be quite fantastic. After the whole process of making it in the art world, why would an emerging artist return to school? Having already acquired a name and reputation within art circles, Rashid Johnson did the unconventional and decided to do just that. Now a graduate student at SAIC, Johnson talks with Barbara DeGenevieve, SAIC professor of photography, about returning to school, his artwork, and the art scene.

Barbara DeGenevieve: Why did you decide to return to school for an MFA? With a successful career as an exhibiting artist, it would seem unnecessary to most people.

Rashid Johnson: When I think about success as an artist I think about success with the work and, to do that, sometimes you have to put yourself in a position where you’re being most challenged. Grad school has given me the opportunity to have that challenge and at the same time have people ask me some difficult questions about the work. Having people focusing really critically on the work is very different than what happens in the commercial gallery or museum world.

BD: How many years had you been out of school?

RJ: I was out of school for about three years. During almost half of my undergrad experience I was already an exhibiting artist and had work in the collection of the Art Institute and some other institutions. So I felt like I was out of school when I was 19. I’m pretty familiar with how to do school and work as an artist at the same time because I’d done it as an undergrad. But the grad experience is definitely different in that it’s more intense, the questions are more intense, and the stakes are higher as well.

BD: How do you juggle those two things?

RJ: There’s no formula. Everyone does it in a different way. A little medication doesn’t hurt… You just have to keep everything in perspective. If you screw up you have to forgive yourself; if you do well you have to pat yourself on the back.

BD: Why do you think you have been so successful from such an early age?

RJ: I guess part of it has to do with me being really aggressive. I would say being naïve was the thing that probably gave me the leg up in that I never knew what was going on in the gallery world or in that system, because I did my undergrad in a very photo-based program (at Columbia College). What we thought was the be-all of art success was a teaching job and a book. And so when I started getting the work out there and I had people interested in me for galleries I thought, well, maybe this can help me get a book! I was so naïve that I didn’t sweat it and was never really intimidated by the situations I was put in, because I wasn’t cognizant of it really being that important. So I just kind of pushed it out there, pushed it out there, pushed it out there, and was confident with the work and too dumb not to know that I should be scared.

BD: So do you have advice for people who are still in school or just starting to think about a career as an artist?

RJ: I always have a lot of trouble with the advice thing. Even though it’s not advice that I followed necessarily, I think it’s really important to get the work tight, to know what you’re doing with the work and be really confident about your ideas, and be really confident about your practice, and to work. I see a lot of artists try to get their work into the world but they don’t actually have any, you know? They’re more concerned with the practice of exhibiting than they are with the practice of creating. It’s really important to concentrate on what you’re making, how you make it, what your intentions are with it. And then go out there in the world, and if you do those things, you go out with a lot more confidence. Send slides, talk to people who know, talk to people who exhibit. Go to galleries, know what galleries you’re looking at and know how your work fits in.

BD: So often students don’t think about seriously exhibiting until they’re near the end of their degree work or even out of school. They don’t think they’re ready.

RJ: I think you have to start thinking about it early—how your work fits into different spaces, different places. The thing I don’t necessarily think you should do is try to get it out there before it’s ready, but I think a consciousness is really important, developing a language, or starting to understand some of the language that’s used around galleries and museums. So I think it’s important to know what’s going on. The validation comes not only from those venues but also from your peers and other people in the community who you know.

BD: So how do you know when the work is ready?

RJ: Listening to the people around you, and looking around and saying, OK, look. My work is as strong as this other stuff I see out there. And not that that’s necessarily going to be the answer, but it might give you enough confidence to present your work and feel strongly about it.

BD: I guess naïveté can help at the beginning. It’s like any big project, if you knew exactly what you were getting into, you might not think you could do it.

RJ: Yeah, and after being in school for a long time, and being beat up a lot, you don’t always have the confidence. You’ve been challenged so many times, you feel like you’re never going to be prepared. So sometimes that naïveté can be helpful. Just building your confidence and making sure you get the stuff out there when you feel like it deserves to be out there.

BD: Looking at naïveté with a more critical eye, sometimes a student will say they want to remain naïve, that reading theory or criticism, or looking at other artists’ work, especially those doing work in a similar vein, will somehow make it too difficult for them to work. They don’t want to know that there are no original ideas left. They think they’ll be tainted or discouraged by seeing that other people are using “their” ideas. But I think it actually works in the opposite way, the more you look at work and read, the more ideas you have and the more sophisticated and complex your thinking about making work becomes.

RJ: Absolutely, because you’re contributing to a dialogue and not reinventing the wheel. I think it’s absolutely obnoxious to think that by looking at someone else’s work you’re going to be jaded. If you’re that weak-minded, you’re in the wrong business.

BD: Speaking of reinventing the wheel, in terms of identity politics and race, do you think the wheel needs to be reinvented for each new generation?

RJ: I think probably it does. Each generation has dealt with the complexity of identity and race politics differently and we all have a different perspective based on time passing. The dialogue needs to be reinvented and redeveloped for every generation so we know where we are in that conversation. It’s really important to my work, but also I’d like people to think about some of the other issues I deal with as well.

BD: I think artists have to reinvent a dialogue in their work as opposed to reinventing the same wheel. To use a feminist analogy, I’ve noticed a lot of young women who take classes in feminist theory who feel they have to take on the role of victim and address issues of female oppression even if it’s not their experience. That’s using the same language and the same wheel.

RJ: Yeah. They’re not using their own voices to deal with it. They actually have a very different perspective on it. A couple generations before me, in recent identity politics, artists dealt quite a bit with the victim and that was important and that was accepted. People were ready to hear it because they hadn’t heard it before. My generation deals with these issues very differently and I think it’s Important to say, “Okay, is the role of victim still the role we really need to build on as practitioners?” From my perspective, it’s not. I think it’s a much more complex language we use around race and identity. People focus on what they knew before, which is that of the speculative victim, but I think the audience who’s going to understand what some of the these artists are doing is a younger audience, maybe 15 or 16 years old.

BD: It seems to be a particularly important period of time in which three different groups—people of color, women, and queers—are finding themselves in a similar situation. These are groups that have been so negatively affected by the intolerance, ignorance and fear (racism, sexism and homophobia) of the dominant culture. I think these groups are starting to see themselves as much more complex than the issues that have traditionally defined their identities. Do you see any parallels, or shouldn’t I be making those connections?

RJ: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s really close. In art and in the art world you see how close it is because you see women dealing with issues of stereotypes and issues of oppression. You see African Americans and Latinos and you see queers doing some similar things. Unfortunately, because of the way the dialogue has been driven, going back to the victim, we see a lot of bad work coming from those groups that simply re-discuss the same stuff rather than reaching deeper and dealing with the more complex issues.

BD: That’s essentially what I was referring to when I was talking about reinventing the wheel that rides itself in the same well-traveled territory…

RJ: We know it and we can see it, and to be honest, I’ve been really disappointed by a lot of the work I’ve been seeing from African- American artists of my generation. And not to impute the generation before mine, but I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the stuff I see. I think there would be some female artists as well as some queer artists who have the same criticisms of their respective groups. But, I think there are some people out there who are doing some great work.

BD: Yes, and they’re the ones who are poking at the complexities and even doing things that might be considered politically incorrect. Who are some of the people you think are making significant work right now?

RJ: Yeah, I mean, you and I have talked about Clifford Owens before, and I go back and forth, but I think he had something really interesting to say [the MCA panel on the “black aesthetic” during the Kerry James Marshall show—ed.], whether I agree with him fully or not. Some cases I do, some cases I don’t, but I think he’s doing some interesting work. There’s another young guy who was at the Art Institute a few years ago—Sanford Biggers. There’s another artist, Kori Newkirk who I really like. A woman named, Adia Millett. A lot of these people were in a show I was in called Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. It was kind of a discovery of this new generation of black artists that Thelma Golden labeled “post-black.” We didn’t understand necessarily, but, over time, I’m starting to see what she was saying, even though the discussion of post-modernity and blackness is a little bit older than Thelma Golden.

BD: Could you describe your understanding of “post-black”?

RJ: I think she may have been thinking about a generation of artists born after the civil rights movement and who are appropriating the idea of understanding victimization and appropriating the idea of understanding blatant racism, what DuBois would call “the new negro.” Understanding that character, the character who was not accepted at all or not allowed to ride in front of the bus. We understand abstract racism more than we do concrete racism.

BD: One of the things I appreciate about your work is that you have no fear of being ironic in terms of race and black identity. In the end this approach creates as serious a statement as more didactic work, but you make the viewer enter the dialogue through another door. When I think of artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams, Lorna Simpson, I wonder if there’s something that needs to be addressed about gender here. Do you think there’s an imperative in terms of gender to make a certain kind of work?

RJ: I think the black female artist faces different challenges than even the black male artist does. She’s carrying both torches, being a woman and being black simultaneously. I wouldn’t know how to deal specifically with that experience. Some of the younger black male artists seem to be dealing a little more with humor, but there are some black female artists out there who are playing with humor and doing some interesting things along those lines—like Susan Smith-Pinelo, the generation of Pat Ward Williams, and Lorna, and Carrie Mae—that really had to be said. They absolutely had to stand up and say, “We’re women, we’re black, we’ve faced these obstacles, and we’re going to make work about it.” And I definitely look to that work. In terms of black photography, I think the last generation was really women. There are very few black male photographers I’ve looked at. There’s Roy DeCarava, but that’s from the ’50s, and he’s thinking more along the lines of Robert Frank and Cartier Bresson, you know, the street and urbanity. So in terms of the conceptual stuff and in terms of ideas, and race politics and identity, we all build ourselves around looking at these pioneering black female photographers. It was really great for me to look at their work and say, that’s not my experience, even though I totally understand that experience and can empathize and sympathize with quite a bit of it. So I have to turn around and say, how do I respond to the stage these women have set?

BD: Absolutely. Women have led the way in the arena of identity politics since the ’70s. Their work made it a lot easier for men, particularly men who were dealing with issues of sexuality and self-representation.

RJ: Right. People like Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, women are the pioneers of identity politics when it comes to photography, and performance as well.

BD: So are issues of identity still relevant?

RJ: I think they are. I think they’re relevant in a different way. I don’t think they’re as relevant anymore in terms of teaching tools, but I think it’s a time when we can discuss them with the understanding that we all have a certain knowledge. We all should be up to date and up to speed with each other, and conscious and capable of dealing with some of the more detailed issues. Now that we all have this knowledge and have a language to deal with it visually, it’s the time to start dealing with some of the more playful things. We’ve accepted privilege, we’re conscious of all these major issues that the generation before us laid down. Now that we have that formal language, I think we can finally talk about the smaller things.

BD: Having had the opportunity to sit in your studio waiting for you to show up for meetings (both laugh), I’ve had some time to sit with your stack of books. How does this literary and theoretical library influence your work?

RJ: It’s been really influential. W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk was one of the most important for me. My mother is an academic, so the way I’ve learned to think was through these other minds, establishing an understanding of ideas through interpreting what other people had to say and then allowing myself to deal with it. I think it’s important for artists to know something about not only history, but about how people deal with things critically. The only way to develop a critical thinker’s mind is to read and to be conscious and to be aware of more than just what you know or what you think you know, but what other people think about what you know. For me, that’s the natural way to work and the natural way to brainstorm and come up with more ideas. A lot of my work deals with responding, and you’ve got to have something in the canon to respond to. You know, just loading my gun with enough bullets so that when I pull the trigger, it shoots.

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