In this new series, the artist pushes the anxiety of these figures, both metaphorically and physically, to breaking point. Grouped together or alone, these ‘broken men’ speak to collective and individual identities in the midst of shifting social realities: as injustices and racial conflicts in the US continue to flare, these works become more neurotic and dystopian than their anxious counterparts. Even the progressive use of smashed tile, once employed in a strict grid formation by Johnson, creates a frantic atmosphere and becomes rich with symbolism. This pointed use of materials is distinct within Johnson’s practice. In these works, the artist also uses a combination of oil stick, black soap, and wax, which is dripped onto the surface in velvety swatches. Black soap, made from the ash of plants and barks and mixed with fat from the shea nut, is highly valued for its medicinal benefits in West Africa and is regularly found in beauty products worldwide. Johnson often explores the ways in which such objects have been used by African-Americans to connect with their diaspora.
In addition, a new series of ceramic busts bring these anxious and broken men into a three-dimensional realm. Departing from Johnson’s historic use of shea butter to create these busts, these ceramic versions reimagine this form of portraiture seen repeatedly in Western art history. Here, the identities of these characters are disfigured: some are faceless, others have nervous, grimacing expressions which have been scratched and pinched across the surface. Johnson also uses these busts as habitats for plants, transforming their function from sculptures to living environments, amplified by their organic and earthy colour scheme.
Taking over the first floor of the gallery are Johnson’s Untitled Escape Collages. In these works, the artist introduces vivid colour through custom-made wallpaper, which features stock images of indigenous masks, tropical beaches and cosmic scenery — a nod to Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist philosophy which looked to escapism in defiance of oppression. The wallpaper is layered and collaged on board, and inlays of ceramic tile, cracked mirror, and branded wood flooring dot the surface. In past works, Johnson has often linked the idea of layering and masking to escapism as a distancing of the self. These collaged surfaces are then covered in marks and gestures by the artist with spray paint and his hallmark mixture of melted black oil-stick, soap, and wax, imparting these large-scale, abstract works with a forceful energy. This kaleidoscopic wallpaper, with its shamanistic visual language and paradisal imagery, evokes dreams of a far-away land, at once mysterious and aspirational, into which these paintings offer the viewer a peek, but no easy access.