IN THE PAST YEAR, Rashid Johnson has received both high honors and the occasional low blow from various quarters of the art world for his wildly referential, formally promiscuous, and increasingly slick conceptual practice. His current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, "Message to Our Folks"--titled after the 1969 Art Ensemble of Chicago album and curated by Julie Rodrigues Widholm--thus offers a prime opportunity to consider the contradictory logics undergirding the artworks that have led one critic to dismiss his practice as symptomatic of a generational penchant for "rehashing received ideas about ideas," and others to breathlessly hail him as the prince of post-black."
As that moniker recalls, Johnson first came to national attention at the age of twenty-three thanks to his inclusion in Thelma Golden's landmark 2001 Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition, "Freestyle," which introduced the notion of post-blackness as a way of emphasizing the unfettered range of black artistic and identitarian constructions in the aftermath of multiculturalism's discursive collapse. Johnson was represented in the show's catalogue by Jonathan's Hands, 1998, a photograph of one of the homeless men he encountered in downtown Chicago while an undergraduate at Columbia College. Produced using the laborious nineteenth-century Van Dyke printing process, the work nevertheless refuses to picture Jonathan's face, echoing the Conceptualist critique of documentary photography that emerged in the 1970s.
Johnson frequently turned to video, sculpture, and installation in the intervening decade, but he has continued to rely on large-format photography to produce temporal cross-wiring in his work, perhaps nowhere more infamously than in his Self-Portrait in Homage to Barkley Hendricks, 2005. This piece and Jonathan's Hands are curiously absent from the present exhibition, yet they serve as touchstones for his art's tacking between historicization and self-fashioning, particularly as modeled by the images arrayed salon style in the second of four galleries devoted to his practice at the MCA. In these photographs, Johnson pictures himself and others in guises that vivify the modes of imaging and the economies of desire engendered by the construction of black masculinity in the United States, from Self-Portrait Laying on Jack Johnson's Grave, 2006, to Sarah with Space Rock, 2009, which depicts a nude blond woman holding the eponymous object while seated in the sort of wicker chair made famous by Huey Newton.
While these works refer, respectively, to the tragic fate of the African-American pugilist of the early twentieth century and to Black Panther imagery of the 1960s, about half of the pictures on view derive from Johnson's series "The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club," 2008, and depict black men in suits whose images are variously doubled, shrouded in smoke, or multiply exposed. Many of these photographs are accompanied by parenthetical subtitles that evoke well-known historical figures-(Emmett), for instance, leads to "Till"--much as the hairstyling of several sitters recalls the coiffure of slave narrator Frederick Douglass, and the title of the project as a whole looks back to the New Negro movement of the 1920s. Taken together, these images fantasize an imagined space outside history where black men and those who love them might congregate, a collective realm that remains fugitive today both despite and because of the civil rights movement's success in opening up spaces of autonomy for middle-class African Americans.
Indeed, the exhibition's black or mirrored sculptural tableaux, which dominate the third gallery, look, at first glance, like mementos of that transitional moment. Yet they summon the clich s of 1970s rec-room decor only to trouble them through the obsessive accumulation of recently published books, such as Death by Black Hole (2007), and through the assemblages' carefully aestheti-cized facture, which emphatically reads as "contemporary art. …