Artist uses ambiguity to challenge ideas

By Rory McCarty

Senior Reporter

You enter to the sound of scuffling shoes on a gym floor and the whine of a drill. The walls are painted a bright pink that’s described as “Pepto-Bismol color.” At each of the corners of the room, you’re greeted by the image of a man with an overenthusiastic “saccharine smile.” It’s certainly a unique art gallery from a unique artist.


Above, Johnson’s sculpture “playball” was on display in its own room and was accompanied by an audio recording of the heads being kick around a gymnasium. Below, “smile” was carved in ebony, and a video of its making was displayed nearby.

Chido Johnson’s gallery, “domestified angst: second recording,” is on display at the Oakland University Art Gallery in Wilson Hall until Nov. 23. Johnson will be giving his artists’ talk

on Nov. 18 at 2 p.m.

Johnson was born in Rhodesia in 1969, the son of American missionaries, and lived in Zimbabwe for most of his childhood. He learned four African languages before he learned English, and didn’t make a white friend until he attended the University of Georgia.

Johnson’s eclectic upbringing forms much of the basis for his art, like his childhood love of spaghetti western movies in his sculpture “i want to be a cowboy.”

In “I want to be a cowboy,” a huddled figure representing Johnson wears a cowboy hat and sits on a cabinet that overlooks a shag carpet cut in the shape of Almeria, Spain, where spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood were first made. Of course, most patrons wouldn’t recognize the shape of the city by glancing at the painting.

“When the general public comes in here, they need to have a visceral experience with it,” Dick Goody, director of the OU Art Gallery said.

Another of Johnson’s sculptures, “i believe I can fly” features cement sculptures of a figure that represents Johnson himself, smiling, with arms outstretched as if it were flying.

The figures rest on a shelf and are surrounded by the materials and mold that were used to make them. Some of the “i believe I can fly” sculptures were done by OU students who were instructed by Johnson.

During the opening reception Saturday, Johnson moved one of the sculptures from “i believe I can fly” from inside the art gallery to out onto the front sidewalk of Wilson Hall.

Wherever “i believe I can fly” is on display, Johnson moves the sculptures around regularly outside the exhibition.

“They’re trying to save the world,” Johnson said. “It’s like that kind of internal faith.”

A few of Johnson’s works confront social norms when he wants to reinterpret a piece of art that someone else made. His piece “me me me” features a faux African “airport art” sculpture, like the kind that would be sold in a gift shop.

Johnson carved a smiling sculpture of himself out of the existing sculpture.

Johnson’s piece “the birth of bob” does the same thing to Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus,” except that the Venus has been blotted out with white paint, leaving only the background. In its place, four nearby sculptures of Johnson’s avatar, Bob, stand naked in bowls that float on water.

Bob appears in many of Johnson’s works and always with a wide but somewhat unsettling smile. Johnson said the name Bob comes from a character in an Enzyte commercial.

Bob’s smile is sometimes a stoic one in Johnson’s works. In his piece “smile,” a wooden figurine of Bob with a scarred face and a nonetheless enthusiastic smile watches a video playing on the opposite wall of itself being carved by a Dremel drill. The drill makes a noise akin to a dentist’s drill.

“It’s like I’m not going to let you see me cry. It’s like I’m faking my happiness,” Johnson said.


Another piece of self-flagellating art on display is “playball,” where a series of soccer balls shaped like Johnson’s head have been kicked around one room of the art gallery, leaving dirt marks all over the soccer balls and the walls.

A soundtrack of the balls being kicked plays in the room. Patrons that look carefully will notice the Nike logo on the back of each of the Johnson heads.

The Nike logo is not the only hint of a consumer product clashing with created art in Johnson’s work.

His work “” features the lower half of a person carved out of wood, but the upper half is made of Home Depot buckets stacked on top of each other, stretching up above the ceiling of the art gallery.

“One of the things about Chido is that his work is often an amalgam of more than one thing,” Goody said.

Goody said the work is a combination of a “ready-made” work of art and a crafted one.

Even the “smile” figurine is resting on an Ikea table. “The spiritual value of the figure goes up compared to the Ikea table,” Goody said.

Johnson said that he always uses himself as the subject for his art because it’s the only real source he knows, and he could never truly claim to know another person.

Johnson said he hoped people who came to see his art gallery would leave it with questions.