The monochromatic chaotic faces of Rashid Johnson’s “Anxious Men” evoke a feeling that is at once relatable to the contemporary human condition. In our current state of crisis, these portraits project complex issues of identity, fear, and uncertainty. They are Johnson’s way of discussing his own biography and the complexity of the black male identity today. This recent exhibition at The Drawing Center of this series is the artist’s most figurative work to date.
At first, these drawings look familiar, like the work of post-WWII modernist painters who returned to the figure. The use of static lines and negative space is similar to the formalist concerns of Dubuffet and Leon Golub. Johnson’s upbringing in Chicago and his studies at the School of the Art Institute must have made him familiar with the latter artist, Golub, who was a part of the Monster Roster during the 1950s.
The unique materials Johnson uses are what continues the aesthetic dialog that concerned the aforementioned artists.It is this personal connection that gives Johnson’s work it’s context and conversation within the history of art. Johnson’s portraits are painterly, yet no actual paint is applied to the work. Instead, the figures take their form from a combination of black soap and wax on tile. These materials are personal to the artist as they’re objects he applies to his own body as an act of cleansing. However, in these drawings, the soap is creating a formative and lasting mark and not cleansing away one’s dirt or grime. These are stains of the modern human condition.
These figures are Johnson’s manifestations and portray the artist’s perspective on being black in the contemporary era. In the wake of the fatal police shootings of unarmed black men throughout the country, these faces are characterized by fear. The drawings entice a visceral reaction, confronting the viewer to the immediacy of the crisis at hand. These intense Figurative Expressionist drawings live up to their moniker of being anxious men. They’re on the brink of sanity, pushed to the limits physically and mentally by America’s overarching systems of white supremacy.