Provocations: Rashid Johnson
October 17, 2018 – July 14, 2019
To launch the ICA’s annual commission series, Provocations, artist Rashid Johnson (b. 1977) will create a new, large-scale work that responds to the soaring, light-filled expanse of the ICA’s top-floor exhibition space, the True Farr Luck Gallery. The Provocations series takes its name from Steven Holl’s design intention for the ICA’s top-floor gallery space, which he calls “a provocation for artists to engage.” The True Farr Luck Gallery features a sculptural ceiling, cathedral-like acoustics, and ample natural light that filters through opaque glass.
Rashid Johnson conceived this new installation, Monument, as a site of both contemplation and collaboration. Visitors are invited to move around the work and to immerse themselves in its textures and details. Throughout its stay at the ICA, Monument will be activated by live performances created in response to the work.
Reaching upward, Monument’s form might suggest unfinished modern architecture, Minimal sculpture, or ancient temples. It is constructed from a steel grid, a choice both practical—simple, modular, strong—and loaded with meaning. Grids often have been used in art to create visual order. Here they also might recall cages and cells, or perhaps film stills: black-framed, precisely-arranged vignettes, sequenced to form a larger composition.
The structure brims with materials that create a collage of associations and contrasts. Johnson has drawn on sources including global art history and philosophy; American literature, film, and music with an emphasis on African-American history and culture; even tropical botany. It also includes rough-hewn sculptures made from one of Johnson’s signature materials, shea butter, which is ground from a West African nut to form a natural skin-care product. These choices speak to the power of Johnson’s creative miscegenation. Drawing on cross-cultural sources, he invites audiences to give the mix a meaning of their own.
Location also is important. Monument only can be reached by going up—by ascending through the Markel Center. That ascension might represent spiritual or emotional uplift as well as the acquisition of power and dominion. The importance of site extends beyond the gallery to geography. This is Johnson’s first major project south of the Mason-Dixon line. As a Black man who grew up in Chicago, with family roots in the South, Johnson’s choice to create a work titled Monument in Richmond, at this moment, is complex and significant. He hopes that his work will be understood in relation to his multifaceted identity—artist, intellectual, son, father, Black, male, cosmopolitan, seeker, maker, collaborator.
Curated by ICA Chief Curator Stephanie Smith.