THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Milwaukee Art Museum, June 23–17 Sept. 2017
by Nicholas Frank
Are we Americans passive, idle witnesses to the rush of events, powerless to change things, or can we mere citizens actively shape the future of our cities, our states, our nation? In the context of the recent presidential election and its roiling aftermath, Rashid Johnson’s Anxious Audiences look like they might be cringing at the after-effects of refusing to participate.
In Fly Away, Johnson’s first iteration of what would become this touring exhibition, his Untitled Anxious Audience paintings greeted visitors immediately as they entered the show. The atmosphere was stark and tense, as the array of asphalt-black, wide-eyed toothy grins peered out from splattered white-tiled surfaces.
A sense of recent or impending violence pervaded the work, both in the scratched-out, angsty facial features of the glaring audience’s heads, and in empty spots between them, which chart those presumably lost to the waves of violence that regularly remove black community members from our citizenry.
In the massive back gallery, the eventual reveal of the monumental Antoine’s Organ acted like a healing instrument to calm the anxieties of entry. The Organ is Johnson’s overweening grid of greenery in hand-built pots interspersed with Shea Butter clumps, full-spectrum grow lights, stacks of books and quiet videos on small screens, all of which embody nourishment and care. To leave, though, visitors had to again face the Anxious Audiences.
At the Milwaukee Art Museum, the experience is reversed. Antoine’s Organ greets visitors even before entering the show, a wall of green lushness and light visible through the main exhibition hall’s splendid glass front. At certain times, select musicians play the piano embedded within the Organ’s structure, adding melodic strains to echo throughout the maze of temporary walls and artworks.
Adjacent to the Organ room are the Falling Men and the Untitled Escape Collages, with the Untitled Anxious Audience paintings tucked safely away in the back gallery. To further calm and reorient, a reading room culminates the show, with comfy chairs and sofas, thumbable copies of the various books stacked amongst the Organ, and catalogues from other Johnson shows and projects.
Johnson himself states that one goal of his work, Antoine’s Organ in particular, is to convey a sense of healing necessary to counter ‘Negrosis,’ a term he coined (combining ‘negro’ and ‘neurosis’) to describe the condition of anxiety haunting so many black American men, who face discrimination, pre-judgment and potential violence at every turn.
Antoine’s Organ, Rashid Johnson, 2016.
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth
But in Milwaukee, generally regarded as the most segregated city in America (basically a toss-up with Detroit), what does it mean to flip the equation of anxiety and healing so deftly advanced at the 2012 Hauser & Wirth show?
In Hail We Now Sing With Joy, audiences are let off the hook. Milwaukee’s voter participation was down 41,000 votes in the 2016 presidential election, compared to 2012 when Obama took the state with 52.8% of the vote. The difference was more than enough to swing the vote here away from Clinton, and Wisconsin became a key element in the national narrative of renewed ethnic suspicion and hatred. While it is inarguable that people here need healing, Hail We Now Sing Joy’s inverse arrangement begs questioning, particularly when the museum’s audience is primarily white (recent efforts to reach beyond the core audience notwithstanding).
Antoine’s Organ is a vast and impressive piece, a sculpture at once monumental and gentle. It is as quietly welcoming as a sculpted garden, intimating vulnerability and need for care as it quietly charts the indelible accomplishments of the African diaspora through art, music, letters and healing notions.
But reverberating amidst the fauna is the disquieting subject of anxiety, spotted in titles like Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety and Debra J. Dickerson’s polemical The End of Blackness. (In a subtly recursive video contained within the installation, Johnson is pictured watching a video reading of Dickerson’s text.) Perhaps most poignantly, various volumes of the blue Alcoholics Anonymous manual are stacked amongst many classics of black literature, from W.E.B. DuBois’s The Soul of Black Folk to a deft interweaving of Randall Kennedy’s memoir Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal with Paul Beatty’s more recent The Sellout, an over-the-top racial farce. If seen for more than its lushness, the Organ becomes a dialectic positing pain as the precursor of healing.
The safe positioning of the Anxious Audiences here in Milwaukee reinforced what I term ‘Midwestern Remove,’ the sense that we are connected to world-changing events just because we witnessed them on TV along with everyone else. This phenomenon became apparent in the wake of 9/11, when people here understandably wanted to be involved, to offer their compassion and aid.
The Falling Men are attributed to video figures from early games Johnson played as a kid, or to flying heroes, but I saw them as the falling figures of those who chose to leap from the World Trade Center towers rather than burn alive; horrifying images most of us received via YouTube. Those suicides represented the early fallout of the ethnic, religious and racial anxieties unleashed on that fateful day, which color the spectrum of our current political climate.
Today as I write, events in Charlottesville remind us of the hardening divisions between states and peoples conditioned by such acts of destruction. With Anxious Audiences and the use of tiled & cracked mirrors in the Falling Men paintings, Johnson deftly positions us as self-conscious witnesses, active participants even when we prefer to imagine ourselves as passive onlookers witnessing from a distance.
Being far away from important events engenders hand-wringing, when one is unable to get close enough to make a difference, when the gap between audience and stage is most palpably felt. Anxiety inspires inaction, a retreat to seemingly safe zones when action might be more effective.
Unfortunately last November, many in Milwaukee chose the path of powerlessness to effect meaningful change by staying home when the fate of the country hung in the balance. They demonstrated to the rest of us the meaning and fate of powerlessness. The ingredients in Johnson’s show reverberate with events current and historical (Milwaukee didn’t become segregated by chance) but its arrangement let us all off comfortably.
For the occasion of Hail We Now Sing Joy, the brassy fanfare that normally accompanies the opening and closing of the museum’s Calatrava-designed ‘wings’ has been replaced by an open-source community singalong of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
Leaving the museum, I chanced to hear it sung by a group of children from Carmen High School, first in English then in Spanish. The Spanish verse ended poignantly in a repeated “para todos” (“for all”). The question remains, to whom does “all” refer in our national concept?
Nicholas Frank is an artist, writer and curator. He programs for The Open and the Nicholas Frank Public Library, and teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.