Rashid Johnson: representing anxiety through art

Rashid Johnson: representing anxiety through art
Artwork by Rashid Johnson for "Untitled Anxious Red Drawings" presented by Hauser & Wirth online. Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
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There’s no way around the fact that life has entered into a new norm during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19. Plans have been put on hold, jobs have entered a time of uncertainty, and staying at home has become a necessity. However, out of anxiety can come creation. In the time that the novel coronavirus has been declared a global pandemic, artist Rashid Johnson has taken time to respond to overarching feelings of anxiety in a new series.

Continuing in the vain of his 2015 series called “Anxious Men,” Johnson has created a new body of works for an online exhibition – launching today – titled “Untitled Anxious Red Drawings.” When he began the series, Johnson was responding to difficult political tensions growing within the US as the presidential election ramped up as well as devastation from mass shootings and reports of police brutality against unarmed black men. The resulting works were composed of repetitive black and white block-shaped faces with scrawled features that veer towards crude.

Since the start of the series, Johnson has revisited the theme, and now, the feeling of anxiety is even more relatable in the face of so much uncertainty. In “Untitled Anxious Red Drawings,” Johnson’s palette changes, as the title would suggest. No longer are the “deceptively crude” images made of black wax. Instead, red oil stick against cotton rag paper elevates the anxiety depicted by Johnson to a new level capturing “the life and death urgency of an unprecedented moment.” Though the repetition is still visible, the faces of anxious men have faded leaving only energetic suggestions of visages demarcated in intense colour.

Johnson’s new series also highlights the impact of social distancing – a concept that, for Johnson, is as familiar as it is alien. The pandemic has forced people around the world to stay away from friends, family, colleagues, and strangers alike in order to slow the spread of the virus. In some ways, keeping our distance has surprisingly brought communities together, metaphorically. As an artist, Johnson is no stranger to working alone but this series represents his reflection on the isolated nature of his work and the freedom it brings at a time when it is easy to feel trapped.

“Untitled Anxious Red Drawings” will launch today through Hauser & Wirth’s Viewing Room, a feature presented by the gallery to show exhibitions online. Additionally, for any works sold from the series, Johnson has pledged to donate 10 percent of the proceeds to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization, a donation that matches Hauser & Wirth’s current philanthropic pledge.

“I’ve never thought of drawings as a precursor to a more substantial object,’ said Johnson in a press release for his new exhibition. “I’ve always thought of drawings as objects that are final.” His final works in “Untitled Anxious Red Drawings” add to the history that Johnson continues to document through his paintings, helping us not to forget the traumas we move through and those we once collectively shared.