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Untitled Anxious Audience

Untitled Anxious Audience
signed with the artist's initials 'RJ' (on the reverse)
black soap and wax on ceramic tiles
73 x 94 1/2in. (185.4 x 240cm.)
Executed in 2017
Hauser & Wirth.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Interim Head of Department

Lot Essay

Scrawled, splashed and spattered across an expanse of white bathroom tiling, fourteen faces stare out from Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Audience (2017). They are formed from a mixture of black soap and wax, which seems to have been hurled violently at the surface. Their frantic features—all whirling eyes and gritted teeth—are scratched into the viscous material. They are stacked in a three-by-five grid, with one member missing at the lower right. The block-shaped heads and necks are locked together like beads in an abacus. Combining the gestural intensity of Art Brut, graffiti and Abstract Expressionism with the material weight of sculpture, Untitled Anxious Audience is a monumental reflection on a society in tension.

Johnson made his debut as the youngest artist in Thelma Golden’s seminal group exhibition ‘Freestyle’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. Expanding from his early photographic practice, he has since gone on to use a wide range of objects and media—including glittering mosaics, piles of books, tropical plants, shea butter and record covers—in a complex engagement with aspects of African-American intellectual history, collective identity and experience. The Anxious Audience series grew from a group of single figures, the Anxious Men, that he debuted at the Drawing Center in New York in late 2015. Johnson had conceived of these characters as spectators to the tumult of the moment—‘global immigration issues, attacks on America, and attacks within America by police on young black men.’ After becoming a father, he began to take a wider view, multiplying his anxious men into ‘audiences’ of subjectivity. ‘I was coming to the realisation that my anxiety was not mine exclusively,’ he said. ‘… When something happens to me, it happens to my family—to the human family’ (R. Johnson, quoted in C. Kino, ‘Rashid Johnson: An Anxious Man’, Cultured Magazine, Autumn 2016, p. 175).

The Anxious Audiences saw Johnson reach new heights of formal ambition. Their tiled grounds and wall-like presence lend them an aspect of scenography. They carry the claustrophobic echo of graffitied bathroom-stalls, collapsing public and private spaces of emotion. The black soap compound, meanwhile, imbues the work with a distinct cultural symbolism. Johnson calls it ‘cosmic slop’, in reference to the Funkadelic track of the same name. ‘My mother is an African history professor so she would have these kinds of materials around the house’, he explains. ‘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 a way to culturise 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’ (R. Johnson, quoted in P. Laster, ‘An interview with Rashid Johnson: “I was more African before going to Africa,”’ Conceptual Fine Arts, 26 October 2016). Johnson’s use of the ephemera of African-American life echoes that of the artist David Hammons, whose work incorporates media such as afro hair, basketball hoops and greased prints of his own body.

Johnson plays with the contrast between the sterile grid of white tiles and his splashed, visceral mark-making. The soapy ‘cosmic slop’ evokes its own kind of cleanliness, as well as a reach for identity. The work’s material impact reveals shifting, subtle layers of meaning. The absence of the lower right audience member adds a further note of narrative uncertainty: has this figure escaped their confinement in the crowd, or exploded under communal pressure? Untitled Anxious Audience pictures the interconnection, power and fragility of shared experience. There is both catharsis and confrontation in viewing these faces as an ‘audience.’ They invoke a heightened self-consciousness in the viewer, witnessing us as we witness them.

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