It was only recently that the New York-based artist Rashid Johnson started to hike in Aspen, Colorado. And when he did, he noticed something particular – how certain sports, like skiing or tennis, can be restricted to the wealthy, and white, elite.
“But hiking, walking, is a real democratized thing,” he said. “You don’t need fucking anything! To walk. You know? But there aren’t a lot of people of color out there.”
The experience led to him shooting The Hikers, a film following two young black dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company, who encounter each other on an Aspen mountain peak while wearing African-inspired masks.
Johnson recently opened an exhibition about the experience, bearing the same name. The Hikers, which opened last week at Hauser & Wirth’s 22nd Street location in New York, features the film shown alongside collages, sculptures and mosaics.
But the film is more than just ballet dancers cascading up and down a mountain. “Who is there with you?” asks Johnson. “If you are alone, is there an enemy out there, a friend?
“We think of the grace of it, but also, the obstacles,” he said. “I think of my body moving while being followed by the police, the robotic movement. Not trying to move quickly. Not making reactions. That isn’t graceful in those terms, it isn’t beautiful or rhythmic.”
The dancers in the film convey this feeling of fear, like an impending crescendo. One can easily think of how loaded their movements are, with ongoing police brutality against people of color across America.
“The body is filled with adrenaline,” said Johnson. “How does the black body function in space, when it’s being witnessed, versus when it’s not? It’s about how the body becomes accustomed to the conditions of stress and anxiety.”
Johnson, who grew up in Chicago, broke into the art scene when the acclaimed American curator Thelma Golden included his work into a post-black art exhibition called Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001 (he was 24 at the time).
Since then, the 42-year-old artist has directed HBO’s Native Son, a drama based on the Richard Wright novel starring Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, made an artwork named after a Public Enemy song, used house plants for sculptures (ferns, notably) and created deadpan pieces about language (one bears the slogan “I Talk White,” from 2003).
Since relocating to New York City in 2005 (he lives in Kips Bay, with a studio in Bushwick), Johnson has been fusing African symbolism with abstract expressionism and artworks that range from black politicians to palm trees. “A lot of my work has dealt with hip-hop, taking materials and tools, combining them with mark-making,” said Johnson. “It’s remixing.”
When asked who he’s listening to right now, he says: “I kind of fuck with Cardi B right now. Her delivery, she’s hood and her politics are on point.”
His latest exhibition features mosaics made from broken glass and ceramic tiles on concrete, a series which the artist calls Broken Men. The works are painted with oil sticks, melted black soap, wax and oak wood flooring, among other materials, and are a continuation of Johnson’s recent series, Anxious Men and Anxious Audiences, from 2015 to 2018, which featured patterned rows of boxy, black portraits on tiles.
One huge mural from this new series is called The Broken Five, featuring a portrait of five men standing in a row. It’s easy to draw a parallel to the Central Park Five, with the recent release of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed Netflix series When They See Us, based on five black teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in the 1980s.
“It wasn’t my intention, but someone came to my studio and asked what the characters have to do with the Central Park Five,” said Johnson. “We live in a time when we connect things to what’s going on in our current moment, and conversations evolve through these connective tissues, whether they’re intentional or not.”
But using a title like Broken Men for a series, which features fragmented mosaics covered in broken glass, also feels like a metaphor for the #MeToo movement, and how the brokenness of men, like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, has been exposed.
“I’m conscious of how the movement has effectively started breaking down the structure of machismo and how masculinity has functioned as a dominant force,” said Johnson. “When I call these works Broken Men, I didn’t intend to gender or race them. It was meant as a stand in for the human condition.”
Johnson points out one artwork in the series which he claims represents his wife, the Iranian artist Sheree Hovsepian. The face of the figure has a pointed beak, and Johnson’s nickname for his wife is Bird.
“It’s a literal re-negating on the maleness for me,” he said. “It had led some people to believe it’s about maleness, but it’s not exclusion.”
Though the Broken Men series calls to mind the chaotic portraits of Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, they also strike a similarity to the trippy books of Carlos Castaneda, where spiritual journeys often began with walks into nature.
Could these broken men each be on their own journeys? “I’ve been thinking maybe they are,” he said. “That existential journey of man v nature, the witness character sometimes alone or accompanied. In a way, they are hikers, left to their own devices.”
Despite the recent movement of resistance art across America – from murals made at the Mexican border wall, slogans on public billboards across the country and even satirical sculptures of the president naked – the artist notes that the Trump era isn’t necessarily a good time for art. Though, it could tap into a global sense of brokenness or the most broken man of all.
“I think doing anything under the Trump era is not a good thing, nor do I think artists are rewarded by a time that’s as frustrating as the one we happen to have,” he said.
“For artists to abandon their long-held aesthetic and political positions, to have that hijacked by some asshole that comes into office over the course of a couple of years, is quite obnoxious,” he added.
“I wouldn’t want my entire practice to be completely taken over by something so asinine.”