For the last two decades, the celebrated artist Rashid Johnson has been obsessed with the mid-century black figurative painter Bob Thompson. During his short career (he died of a Heroin overdose in 1967 at the age of 29), Thompson painted more than 1,000 canvases of scenes populated with figures of all hues that were deeply influenced by Renaissance and Baroque painting and the 1950s movement of post-Beatnik and bebop-inflicted Abstract Expressionism. Thompson’s resplendent portraiture has inspired Johnson to curate Color People, a group show of painters at Rental Gallery including Sam Gilliam, Amy Sherald, Mary Heilmann, and Thompson, among others, that share an exploration of the social radicality of color.
“I just kind of fell in love with Bob’s work,” Johnson tells Creators. The artist was introduced to Thompson’s work in the late 1990s, in part through the massive retrospective Bob Thompson, staged by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1998. “I just thought it was so different from anything that I had seen because, at the time, so many of the artists of color were working in heavy abstraction or very differently in terms of figurative representation.”
He says, “Thompson’s’ paintings were more allegory of blue, yellow, and red people. It was fascinating to think about how he got to that place where he was depicting these characters that were race-less.”
The most obvious link between the artists in the show is their use of color. Although some use representation, like Robert Colescott in Last Right: The Spirits of the Dead are Watching, and others use abstraction, like Mary Weatherford in her tippy river painting, the thing that binds them all, for Johnson, is their “decision making.” Johnson believes there is a certain kind of taste development in the assembled painters’ use of color and an opportunity to explore their palette as race, theory, and feeling. “In this particular exhibition, I am talking about how artists perform and choose color and how those choices speak to an individual sense of what the world could look like if you bring color to it.”
There are a variety of approaches seen in the show. Gilliam’s red, blue, and green watercolor, Parade VII, employs color through staining; Thompson’s humorous oil, The Golden Ass, features a more traditional application; McArthur Binion uses crayon and collage elements in his 2016 brown abstraction, DNA: Sepia II; Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s Mean Ol’ Teacher uses color as a way to bridge abstraction and figuration in a collaged face made up of many different harlequin features.
In all, Johnson calls the exhibition “joyous in nature.” He says color is something that he has been interested in exploring in his own practice too. In Johnson’s last exhibition, Fly Away at Hauser and Wirth, his thinking around color was on display in his Escape Collages of green landscapes, where he used color as a way to create content and show his autonomy as an artist to allude to the political. For Johnson the collages at their core, “dive into what aesthetics are and what is valuable and interesting to any individual artist past the idea of iconography.” His use of green in those works represent a sincere employment of color to tell a narrative that is dictated by what a specific color means.
If the expectation was for Johnson, an artist who is well-known for his exploration of race, to devise a show that more overtly nettles the current administration or longstanding systemic inequality, this summer show defies it.
“It’s an exhibition that doesn’t focus on a time,” he says. “It doesn’t locate us in the situation we are currently in. For this summer show, I didn’t want to be fully negotiated. I didn’t want to make a now show.”
He adds, “Art doesn’t have to speak to every moment to maintain its radicality. In a time like this, art can provide a respite from some of the conditions [to which] we have been subjected.” Amen.
Color People continues through July 25 at Rental Gallery. Click here for more information.