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Rashid Johnson: From Columbia to MCA

A large broken mirror hangs on the wall, with black soap dripping from it and books stacked on the shelves. “The Shuttle” looks like an alien spaceship.

image of The New Negro Escapist Social and Ath...
"The New Negro Escapist: Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood)" 2008 by Rashid Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The piece is one work in “Message to Our Folks,” the current show by artist Rashid Johnson at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).

Born in 1977 and raised in Chicago, Johnson has been producing photographs since he was a junior at Columbia College. Now his art has moved into several different media.

Johnson works with everyday materials to create his art—from soap to mirrors. He uses his art to reflect on different issues. The theme of this show is identity.

Steven Bridges, the curatorial assistant at MCA, said the exhibition showcases Johnson’s works during the past 14 years.

“As a kind of survey exhibition, it was important to kind of show work from the different stages of his development over the years of his career,” Bridges said.

The pieces in the exhibition span from his early days when Johnson was still attending Columbia College Chicago during his undergraduate years in 1998 and 1999 and to more recent work.

Johnson, who lives in New York, was very involved during the entire process of developing the exhibition, Bridges said.

“It was very important for us to work closely with him,” said Bridges.

The curator of the exhibition, Julie Rodrigues Widhom, and Johnson worked closely together. “They really collaborated on the exhibition together. Rashid was involved in all aspects in every step along the way,” said Bridges.

“We would always go to him and get his input and feedback as to how things were progressing and developing,” Bridges said.

Every artist starts somewhere. Johnson graduated in 2000 with his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Columbia College Chicago. He later attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005.

During his junior year at Columbia, Johnson had his first show at the Schneider Gallery.

Martha Schneider, the director at the Schneider Gallery, 230 W. Superior Street, said, “At that time he was mainly a photographer, and I liked his work tremendously. I offered him a show, and we were very successful with it.”

Schneider said she thought Johnson was very good at what he did. When she first met him, she thought “he was amazing,” and although she hasn’t seen him in a number of years and doesn’t know what he is like now, she still plans to go see his exhibition.

The Monique Meloche gallery, 2154 W. Division Street, represents Rashid Johnson.

Whitney Tassie, the director of Monique Meloche, said Johnson has been with the gallery for the past 10 years. The gallery maintains his archive and is one of the dealers that sells his work.

“We are thrilled,” about the MCA exhibition, said Tassie. “It is a beautiful show, and Rashid is really happy with it. It is really neat to see the work we have placed in private collections come back on view in this retrospective show.”

Johnson’s artistic progress can be seen in the exhibition, his first major solo show.

“I think his work has grown and strengthened, but he is still interested in many of the same issues he started investigating. But it is definitely more mature,” said Tassie.

As well as having the exhibition at MCA, Johnson a number of publications have recently published stories about him.

“Mr. Johnson’s bold markings and symbols recall the work of Franz Kline (an American painter) and Adolph Gottlieb (an American abstract expressionist painter, sculptor and graphic artist),” said an article on the New York Times website.

According to, Johnson is a thinker and a trickster. Though his photographs are good, the actual production is not always pretty. The article adds, “Johnson’s work is discussed frequently within the context of post-Black art.”

Johnson was a nominee for the Guggenheim Museum’s 2012 Hugo Boss Prize, and he was awarded the annual David C. Driskell prize of $25,000, which honors the brilliance of African-American art and scholarship.

The exhibition at the MCA is open until Aug. 5, 220 E Chicago Avenue. For prices and times go online to or call 312.280.2660.

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