Ezra Johnson’s Cap’n Crunch – Florida Takes Manhattan
USF studio art professor Ezra Johnson is now the lord of a small, Colonel Kurtz-style jungle outpost on the shore of the Hillsborough River – but just over five years ago, he was a striving artist in New York City, and he still regularly shows in the Big Apple. His latest show opened last week at Freight + Volume in Manhattan’s storied Lower East Side, but the entire collection of twenty or so painting reflects a fascination with his new home base.
As you might have guessed, the subject matter includes pirates – Tampa Bay’s probably fictionalized but still altogether appropriate spirit animal. Johnson’s pirates include a pair of jauntily deconstructed, nearly life-size swashbucklers, painted in bright, dreamy washes with his signature primitivist zeal.
Other highlights for those hunting Tampa Bay references include plenty of palm fronds, the legendary/infamous Mons Venus strip club, and a seaside Tarot shop – which Johnson said isn’t actually based on a real building, but which still manages to capture Tampa’s unique strain of lush decline. Everything is blocked in fleshy shades of green, pink, and orange, a Floridian palette that is increasingly becoming Johnson’s own.
At the opening celebration on Oct. 13, the Tampa touchstones probably went largely unrecognized by the crowd of New York art world up-and-comers. They rubbed elbows with the overflow crowd from a streetwear pop-up shop next door, who cycled through both to raid the Rubbermaid tub full of free beer and, more often than not, to appreciate the work.
Though Johnson’s art often flirts with absurdism or satire (Cap’n Crunch also featured a pair of hand-painted cereal boxes, whose brand you can probably guess), his latest collection also features several examples of underlying emotional pathos. One piece shows a woman and child – presumably Johnson’s wife and son – staring meaningfully into one another’s eyes. The show also features the latest of his painted animations, a truly affecting if mostly abstract journey through color and shape.
Johnson’s political streak also shows through, including with a cubist-comic depiction of two mounted police officers overseeing a demonstration. The cops look friendly enough, and the protestors are operatic – but none of their placards are entirely legible, rendering their demands broadly existential rather than fleetingly instrumental. That’s a step forward, I would argue, from the blunt messages tucked into Johnson’s Angry Sea exhibit last Fall at Arts & Leisure Gallery: political art can stake important claims on a moment, but art about politics can illuminate the timeless dynamics of human struggle.
Johnson has been processing the garish and hallucinatory aesthetic of storefronts and strip malls into art since long before USF brought him to Florida. But Tampa Bay, with its wild mix of the raw and the cooked, seems more and more to be turning into a kind of muse for him. Hopefully some of these paintings will make their way back home to Florida at some point – but if you’d like to see them while they’re fresh, Cap’n Crunch shows through Nov. 12 at Freight and Volume, 97 Allen Street, New York, NY. Visit freightandvolume.com to find out more.