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Artist Rashid Johnson Used Aspen as a Backdrop For New Show

By David Stillman Meyer | July 3, 2019 | Culture

The contemporary artist and Aspen Award for Art winner uses our mountain "utopia" as a backdrop for a show of new work.


Once upon a mid-1940s time, a cardboard executive from Chicago came to Aspen to create his version of utopia. This box-maker didn’t see his propitious products as mere tools of industry.

He saw their blank outside panels as canvases and hired some of the finest artists of the day to adorn them. The man was Walter Paepcke of Paepcke Park fame (also of the Container Corporation of America, the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Aspen Skiing Corporation fame). He and his wife, Elizabeth, saw Aspen, too, as a canvas upon which to create a humanistic mountain paradise.

Eighty years on, another “container man”—of sorts—also from Chicago, has come to Aspen to explore perhaps a more complicated vision of utopia. His containers are strictly works of art, stacked metal frames, which hold potted plants, found objects and butter (more on that later). While most people think of art as static and unchanging, Rashid Johnson’s works are meant to absorb their surroundings—sometimes horticulturally, as certain cases may be, sometimes sonically, sometimes conceptually.

Johnson explains, “I always want my work to be overgrown, or overcome by environment.” When asked about Aspen’s environment he responds, “It’s so formidable, so beautiful and cascading. … The extremes of the place are definitely something to think about.” Born and raised in Chicago, now a citizen of New York City, Johnson works in a wide array of media exploring themes of art history, individual and shared cultural identities, personal narratives, literature and philosophy. He started in photography, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. Johnson’s practice quickly expanded to embrace a wide range of media including sculpture, painting, drawing, filmmaking and installation, each medium folding into the next. In a review, The New York Times describes, “He makes photographs that look like paintings, paintings that are somehow sculptural, sculptures that resemble furniture.”

Materials include wax, wood, steel, brass, shea butter, ceramic tile, books, records, VHS tapes, live plants, pianos and CB radios. The list may feel ad hoc, yet the effects are remarkably succinct. Heidi Zuckerman, the CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum, identifies the common themes: “Identity. Utopia and what that means culturally, socially and physically. Environment and landscape, where we find ourselves and why and how and what kind of psychological or philosophical impacts those spaces have on the person who inhabits them.”

The solo show features new and existing works and includes a commissioned installation with live performative elements complete with aspects of ballet. “I’ve been interested in movement for years,” Johnson explains over the phone, “movement in modern dance, martial arts, yoga and tai chi, but not so much in a formal way with ballet… I’m working with a choreographer and writing a story that will be the genesis of the ballet. It will live as a film and also as a live performance." The film part will be done here in Aspen.

As mentioned above, butter, specifically shea butter, plays a recurring role in Johnson’s practice. Made from the West African shea tree, the derived fat is used in everything from cooking to luxury cosmetics. Primarily, though, it protects and heals that which is sensitive, e g., skin. In Aspen’s stratospheric environment of privilege and landscape, there is one leveler, and that is the undiluted sun. This valley is, if nothing else, an interesting environment to contemplate sensitivity: cultural, socioeconomic, gender, racial and, yes, dermatological.

Last summer, when speaking about his installation “No More Water” at Lismore Castle Arts in Ireland, Johnson explained his broader motives: “Art has a long story to tell, and I think it’s a really effective delivery system and tool for change. It’s a slower tool than others. More quiet than activism, but in the end, it gives us an opportunity to have a voice, and the amplification of one’s voice is something I’ve always been invested in. If I can quietly but intentionally amplify my voice with these works in spaces that are public, then I feel like I’ve left something that I can be proud of.” Perhaps this is an idea of utopia that Paepcke and Johnson were meant to share.

Admission to the Aspen Art Museum is always free of charge. Johnson’s show, created in collaboration with the Museo Tamayo, will be on display July 4 to Nov. 4 and then travels to Mexico City. (Also, don’t miss his feature film directorial debut, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, streaming now on HBO.)

Photography by: Photography by Rashid Johnson