Artist Insights: Rashid Johnson


Artist Rashid Johnson is only 34, but much of the art world already knows him as a young, prolific, multi-media artist with a host of exhibitions under his belt. His career momentum has been quickly building into something quite impressive and this summer in Chicago his fist retrospective takes place at the Museum of Contemporary Art. From his start as a student at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute, to his early breakout exhibitions over a decade ago, Johnson has already covered a lot of ground, and we know to expect more challenges and creative exploration from him. CGN’s Laura Miller spoke with Johnson about his connections to Chicago, the complexities of his work and his upcoming retrospective. -LM


CGN: You hail from Chicago, where you grew up in Evanston and attended both Columbia College Chicago as well as The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Though you’ve lived and worked in New York going on 8 years, how are you still connected to Chicago?

RJ: My family lives in Chicago, so that’s a huge connection to the area for me. As far as my career, I still have a strong partnership with Monique of moniquemeloche gallery, where I began showing my work almost a decade ago. My wife also exhibits with Monique.


Are there some Chicago artists that stand out as particularly influential to you?

Sure. There are many Chicago artists that are influential to me – Kerry James Marshall is an important character. Bernard Williams, Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, Heidi Norton – to name a few...

Do you consider yourself a Chicago artist? A New York artist?

I don’t consider myself to be classified with any particular region. I’m not a Chicago artist or a New York artist. But a Chicagoan? Absolutely.


What are some difference between Chicago and New York for artists – from schooling, to your current studio practices?

I lived in Chicago when I was a young artist and still in school, and I found it t be a really nurturing environment. It’s an incredible place to grow as an artist. I had a lot of support from local galleries and institutions and that was tremendously valuable to me as far as developing my relationships locally. I was very happy with my studies in Chicago at Columbia and SAIC.

My path led me to New York, but Chicago is a great city to start a career and to continue a career. New York is just an entirely different place; the expectations are different, and you’re more responsible for yourself.


Your work often incorporates your personal history and experiences alongside historical references and symbols. Elements of science and the natural and spiritual world also come up. Have these subjects been constant inspirations in your work? Anything new that’s been influential?

They’ve always been present in my work. I’d say Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Death by Black Hole has been significant for me in the past few years.

Your spring retrospective at the Museum of contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) represents 10 years of your work with an emphasis on the last 5 years. Can you talk about the trajectory of your work from the past decade?

I think my trajectory shows significant growth. The MCA’s intention is to show that growth over a period of time – beginning with what I was making ten years ago to more recent work, which is quite different in terms of approach and materials. My relationship to materials have evolved in a way that I couldn’t have expected or considered earlier in my career, but I’m happy with the way things have progressed. I hesitate to get into too much detail and will let viewers experience and interpret the work for themselves.


The MCA exhibition is coming at an interesting time for the country as the presidential election nears and attention will be focused again on Chicago, and of course President Obama. Do current sociopolitical issues and public figures generally impact your work?

I don’t consider the political atmosphere or discourse to be specific to the way I’m making art, but I do think it’s interesting that everyone else does. If I’m engaging contemporary conversations around race or politics, I’m interested by that.


Are there any new avenues you’re exploring within your work right now?

I’m interested in a body of work that in some way deals with the idea of the fallout shelter meeting the Freudian day bed. Group therapy. That intrigues me.



Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks

Exhibition runs April 14-August 5, 2012

Museum of Contemproary Art (MCA)

220 E. Chicago Ave. (60611)


moniquemeloche gallery

2154 W. Division (60622)


Top image: Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait as the Professor of Critical Theory, Miscegenation and Astronomy at the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Center for Graduate Studies, 2008. Collection of Marilyn and Larry Fields, Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist.