The dream embedded in the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” is rest — a cessation of struggle, labor, drudgery. The song is about escape signified by an avian transcendence, so it is no wonder that despite having been written by Albert Brumley, a white man from rural Oklahoma, it has been wholly adopted by the black church, and is said to be the most recorded song of all the gospel anthems. Rashid Johnson’s Fly Away, currently on view at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea, trades in some mighty and influential tropes, like the hymn and the ideas it conveys.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the symbols and signs Johnson employs have even greater power right now, in this charged political moment when the issue of black men (and women) being regarded by law enforcement officials as the phobic object. As such, prima facie presumed to be dangerous and uncontrollable, black people are subject to a fusillade of organized violence that seeks to stamp out the person before he or she can cause any harm. In Johnson’s recent exhibition at the Drawing Center, Anxious Men, he used many of these potent signs to provoke the viewer to infer the anxieties that exist for most of us — not just black men — around the social, economic, and political identity and status of black men in this nation at this time. This is a heavy conversation, and it feels here that the massive objects and the ideological weight they carry are not counterbalanced by whatever it is Johnson wants to say about this moment.
Much of the work, separated into distinct sections, is compelling. The show includes Anxious Audiences (2016), paintings very much like the Anxious Men (2015) series shown at the Drawing Center: faces made with a concoction of black soap and wax placed on white tile and roughly scrawled as if they were drawn with a trowel. They read as faces forced into a rictus caught between the smile of “I’m safe” and the clenched teeth of “I’m angrier than you can imagine.” These faces are laid out in massive grids — four up and nine across — with spaces vacant now and then, as if gesturing toward the men who have gone missing, flown away by steel jacketed bullets.
Another space features the Falling Men (2015), which are wall assemblages made up of white tile, red oak floorboards (sometimes charred), mirror pieces, and the black soap and wax material. In them, upside-down stick figures can be seen inlaid in either glass or tile. They seem like early video game characters caught at the moment when they are falling through spaces demarcated by square pixels. More, there is a table with large chunks of shea butter left haphazardly on a Persian rug. The Escape Collages (2016) are the exhibition’s least decipherable elements for me; paintings on multicolored tile with tropical scenes made up of green and amber tones, here and there they are smeared with the black soap and wax mixture, and images reprised from earlier work portraying Johnson’s father as a young man.
The key installation, “Antoine’s Organ” (2016), is a large, three-dimensional architectural grid of simple, black scaffolding that is filled with a variety of provocative objects, including live plants, video monitors, mounds of shea butter, and books with titles including The Sellout, Sellout, The Souls of Black Folks, and The End of Blackness. Clearly, by the book titles, we can intuit one of the sources of his anxiety — the weight of black opprobrium on the art he makes.
On the day I visited, Antoine Baldwin happened to be present, playing on the piano installed within the structure. The music was somewhat melancholy; I’m told he was playing jazz, but it reminded me of Chopin. A friend of mine originally from Sierra Leone, who has about 15 plants around his apartment, once told me that because he came from a green place, he “need[ed] green things around.” It seems that Johnson may share that feeling, and perhaps that tropical heaven is pockmarked with entreaties and polemics, so there will be no flight, just a wish to have it.
Johnson has much power at his disposal. He has a keen intellect, a powerhouse gallery, and access to major institutions and critical attention. However, like a brilliant filmmaker (Darren Aronofsky comes to mind) who has great initial success with the uniqueness of his vision but then is given a huge budget to realize larger ideas and finds that somehow the cart he was pulling up the hill has gained its own momentum and has started pulling him, this show feels like too much material and high production values and not enough sense. You can be too profligate with your power. For all its grand gesturing, Fly Away is full of work too heavy to lift on one’s own, and the artist hasn’t given me a lever with which to find out what’s underneath.