Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks

with 2 comments

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Rashid Johnson, “Self Portrait in Homage to Barkley Hendricks,” 2005.

Why is Self Portrait in Homage to Barkley Hendricks not included in the MCA’s current Rashid Johnson retrospective, Message to Our Folks?  The photographic work is included in the exhibition catalogue, and MCA curator Julie Rodriguez Widholm writes that it is perhaps Johnson’s “most understood work.”  The work is an illustrative example of both Johnson’s “dialogue with black American creative and intellectual figures whose impact has transcended race” and his “dialogue with modern and contemporary art history, specifically abstraction and appropriation.”  Both these quotes are from the curatorial statement on the MCA’s website.  True, other self portraits (some of which engage in appropriation and cultural and intellectual figures) are in the exhibition, but they don’t compare in my opinion to the stark and confrontational Self Portrait in Homage to Barkley Hendricks.

The exhibition is sponsored by a slew of galleries who represent Johnson, and a similarly lengthy list of local collectors who (equally) love Johnson’s work.  The Joyce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts round out the list of exhibition supporters.

Robert Mapplethorpe, “Man in a Polyester Suit,” c. 1980.

The NEA doesn’t exactly have a history of favoring photos of black penis.  Perhaps ironically, a different black member (with a storied history with the NEA) is on display one floor above the Johnson show, in the MCA’s This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s.  The 80s exhibition includes a trio of Mapplethorpe photographs from his infamous Black Book.  One of these is Man in a Polyester Suit, which the MCA says was circulated by Senator Jesse Helms “to drum up support for anti-obscenity laws that would dramatically reduce public funding for the arts,” AKA the 80s Culture Wars.

Chicago collectors love Johnson’s work and I know at least one lender to the Johnson show has Self Portrait in his collection.  There is both a lot of repetitive work (multiple mirrored shelve pieces) and a lot of empty wall in Message to Our FolksSelf Portrait should have been included in the retrospective, and I hope the NEA funding wasn’t the reason for its omission.

Barkley Hendricks, “Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait),” 1977.

Johnson’s Self Portrait is, as its full title says, homage to Barkley Hendricks—specifically a Hendricks nude self portrait cheekily titled Brilliantly Endowed.  The painting was included in the recent Hendricks retrospective, Birth of Cool, which was hosted in Southern California by the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2009.  The NEA also supported that show.  The NEA didn’t seem to mind Hendricks’s dick, so why should they mind Johnson’s Johnson? (I’m not saying they did.)  Did it make a difference that Hendricks painted his penis, while Johnson’s snapped his shlong with a camera?

– H.I.

P.S. Other museums seem to have less issue with collecting and displaying black penis.  The Getty Research Institute and LACMA recently co-acquired the Mapplethorpe archive and LACMA is organizing an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios for Fall.  The sponsors for that show haven’t yet been announced, but I’ll keep you posted.

2 Responses

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  1. great piece!


    May 22, 2012 at 2:56 PM

  2. this is a good question. I also speculated an answer back in April (link below). Perhaps Johnson’s new massive black canvases stand-in for his well-known early photograph, absent from the survey. Both works dominate the viewers.


    Jason Foumberg

    July 10, 2012 at 9:37 AM

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