A grid of fifteen powerful faces grimace wide-eyed from Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Audience (2018). They are made of a mixture of black soap and wax, splattered and scrawled into formation upon a ground of white ceramic tiling almost eight feet across. Their whirling eyes and gritted teeth are scratched into the soap compound—which Johnson calls “cosmic slop”, in reference to the Funkadelic track—with a visceral, graffiti-like energy that counters their rectilinear arrangement. This is a work of high-keyed tension and striking emotional impact. Johnson’s Anxious Audience series developed from a group of single figures, the Anxious Men, that he debuted at the Drawing Center in New York in fall 2015. They multiplied into “audiences” in response to both personal and political change. Johnson conceived of them as spectators to the tumult of the time—“global immigration issues, attacks on America, and attacks within America by police on young black men.” Having recently become a father, he had come to feel that simply exploring his own state of mind was no longer enough. “I was coming to the realization that my anxiety was not mine exclusively,” he says. “It also had something to do with fatherhood … When something happens to me, it happens to my family—to the human family … Thinking more responsibly about all of us—that happens with maturity” (R. Johnson, quoted in C. Kino, “Rashid Johnson: An Anxious Man”, Cultured Magazine, fall 2016, p. 175). With their vivid, frantic expressions, the Anxious Audiences act as a startling and cathartic mirror for our collective worry.
The heightened sense of societal responsibility in these works coincided with bold new artistic ambition for Johnson. Untitled Anxious Audience’s mural scale and gestural intensity rival the force of a vast Abstract Expressionist canvas by Jackson Pollock. There is a reflexive intimacy and confrontation in viewing the faces as an “audience”—they witness us as we witness them. The use of tiles and soap creates an unnerving echo of a bathroom-stall freak out, walling us in and collapsing public and private spaces of emotion. As Roberta Smith wrote on viewing these works, “the frazzled faces are stacked like pictures in a yearbook, or perhaps men in a cellblock. They bring to mind the work of Basquiat, Dubuffet and Gary Simmons, but mainly they surround us with an arena filled with angry or fearful spectators. Each painting is titled ‘Untitled Anxious Audience,’ which works both ways in an art gallery” (R. Smith, “In ‘Fly Away,’ Rashid Johnson Keeps the Focus on Race”, New York Times, September 15, 2016).
Johnson made his debut as the youngest artist in Thelma Golden’s seminal group exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum, Harlem, in 2001. Beginning with photographic work, he developed an eloquent conceptual practice underpinned by distinctive material intelligence. The black soap in Untitled Anxious Audience, for example, is not only a medium for explosive physical application, but also injects history, political consciousness and humor into the picture. “I was first exposed to many of these things as a young man,” Johnson explains. “My mother is an African history professor so she would have these kinds of materials around the house. When I got older I started to see how things like shea butter and black soap were African products that really speak to an African-American audience. They were delivered and sold on the streets of Harlem and the streets of Brooklyn and on the South Side of Chicago. I thought about what these materials must mean to the people that are using them and came to the conclusion that they were a way to culturize oneself in Africanness as you’re exploring or looking for an identity, especially in a country that has had such a complicated history with the people. Because of the lack of information that most Americans have about their ancestry they try to build their own histories, build a narrative or bridge to that African experience. There’s an absurdity to it, but it’s also really poetic” (R. Johnson, quoted in P. Laster, “An interview with Rashid Johnson: ‘I was more African before going to Africa,’” Conceptual Fine Arts, October 26, 2016).
Modular and anonymous, the regimented faces in Untitled Anxious Audience seem to figure that search for identity, as well as the ultimate reductiveness of cultural markers as a way of defining selfhood. Likewise, the work’s stark contrast of black soap on white tiling cleverly troubles the idea of a black/white binary. As Smith observes, “the faces are rendered as if with a big, soft black crayon on white ceramic tile redolent of Western kitchens and especially bathrooms. The point is unmistakable—filth versus purity—but it is contradicted once you notice that the crayon is really a mixture of wax and black soap (A little Googling reveals that it is often called African black soap, known for its healing properties, and first made in Ghana.) So there’s no binary, just two forms of cleanliness” (R. Smith, “In ‘Fly Away,’ Rashid Johnson Keeps the Focus on Race”, New York Times, September 15, 2016). Embedding such subtleties in the very substance of his work, Johnson creates a picture that is immediate in its vigor and vast scale but also richly complex in its compound layers of shifting, even contradictory meaning. In doing so, Johnson foregrounds the importance of the nuanced, thoughtful engagement that is required to navigate contemporary life responsibly. Ultimately, perhaps, such understanding might allow us to transcend the conflict that runs like an electric charge through these highly-strung faces. “Fear is a stabilizer and anxiety is an alert system”, says the artist. “There’s so many things happening today that my spidey sense goes off, and that’s my anxiety, and I’m happy to have it” (R. Johnson, quoted in A. Martinez, “Anxious Man: Rashid Johnson on Navigating Worry, Violence and Parenthood”, Observer, September 28, 2016).