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Bruise Painting "Or Down You Fall"

Bruise Painting "Or Down You Fall"
signed 'Rashid Johnson' (on the reverse)
oil on linen
96 x 84 ¼ in. (243.8 x 214 cm.)
Painted in 2021.
Donated by the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York
Further details
This lot is being sold by a charitable organization with proceeds intended to benefit ClientEarth and a US taxpayer may be able to claim a deduction for any amount of the purchase price paid in excess of the mid-estimate.

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Lot Essay

“My only sin is in my skin / What did I do to be so black and blue?”Fats Waller, “Black and Blue”

Embracing universal symbols, Rashid Johnson creates monumental compositions that deal with internal struggles and emotional states. Bruise Painting “Or Down You Fall” is a twisting winding illustration of the artist’s recent Bruise Painting series. Evolving out of his 2015-17 Anxious Men series, this painting was named not only for the deep blue and black paint used, but also as a response to a society recovering from a great amount of pain and suffering. “After the bruising of COVID, [...] and recent reckonings with race, gender, sexuality and identity, Johnson was ruminating about his own emotional state and our collective one, as he sees it” (H. M. Sheets, “In Rashid Johnson’s Mosaics, Broken Lives Pieced Together”, The New York Times, September 23, 2021).

“Rashid’s new work also deals with this foundational idea of how life is lived in the private quotidian sphere, away from the public gaze and the obligations to perform certain expected roles. It’s still a space that’s fraught and complex.”Katherine Brinson

By utilizing his anxious face motif, Johnson is able to explore these societal and personal issues in a way that makes sense to him and his practice while leaving room for the audience to find themselves within his tangled lines. First shown at an exhibition titled after Fats Waller’s song “Black and Blue”, the Bruise Paintings grapple with a universal sense of malaise and dread in the wake of a global pandemic. Creating a touchstone for a shared feeling is difficult, but Or Down You Fall and its brethren successfully leverage gestural linework and brooding color to tap into an apprehensive zeitgeist.

Organized in a six-by-five grid, Johnson’s epic composition is drenched in dark blue and black tones. Drawing from his own personal iconography, the mass of anxious faces evolves from earlier works into an increasingly frantic, alarming amalgam of bulging eyes and gritted teeth. With allusions to the animated faces of Keith Haring’s canvases and the loose lines of artists like Cy Twombly, Or Down You Fall pulses and swarms with raw energy. Some of the characters are rendered in a lighter blue, their looping eye sockets appearing ghostly next to the others, while some have given over completely to an inky demise. A patchwork of squares emerges from the jumble like a coded message and just as quickly sinks back into the depths. The density and claustrophobic nature of the surface puts one on edge, something to which the mask-like visages can certainly relate.

“It’s like the smiley face, or the peace sign. This is anxiety. It’s really interesting that way. And it’s interesting that maybe we didn’t have a symbol for it previously. It was something that universally understood, anxiety, it’s not a new condition, yet there was still space to frame really specifically.” Rashid Johnson

New York Times critic Roberta Smith remarked, “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” (R. Smith, “In ‘Fly Away,’ Rashid Johnson Keeps the Focus on Race”, New York Times, September 15, 2016). As Johnson has continued to revisit this frenetic theme, he has slowly allowed the faces to recede into the painting itself. This example is almost completely abstract as the eyes and mouths of the painting’s denizens become obfuscated by swirls and swipes of the artist’s brush.

The youngest artist to be included in Thelma Golden’s pivotal Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, Johnson has been pushing forward ever since. His practice spans several series, and often deals with larger issues that the artist has internalized before setting them to canvas. “My work has always had concerns around race, struggle, grief and grievance,” the artist noted, “but also joy and excitement around the tradition and opportunities of Blackness,” (H.M. Sheets, op. cit.). Though Bruise Painting “Or Down You Fall” may not depict specific African American subjects, Johnson operates under the idea of ‘post-black’ and Golden’s assertion that artists can deal with issues of race without always resorting to figurative, representational, or narrative artworks. Furthermore, just because an artist is of a particular race does not mean that they are beholden to certain types of art and subject matter. Moving beyond the traditionally slim prescribed territory for African American artists in art history, artists like Johnson explore an expanded realm of ideas and possibilities. With the Bruise Paintings, the painter seeks a wider audience. He uses the stylized face as a stand-in for everyone affected by the shifting, changing world and asks us to become aware of similarities we might share with our fellow humans.

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