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 äóñ 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 Manhattanäó»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 äóñ Tampa Bayäó»s probably fictionalizedæbut still altogether appropriate spirit animal. Johnsonäó»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 äóñ which Johnson said isnäó»t actually based on a real building, but which still manages to capture Tampaäó»s unique strain of lush decline. Everything is blocked in fleshy shades of green, pink, and orange, a Floridian palette that is increasingly becoming Johnsonäó»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 Johnsonäó»s art often flirts with absurdism or satire (Capäó»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 äóñ presumably Johnsonäó»s wife and son äóñ staring meaningfully into one anotheräó»s eyes. The show also features the latest of his painted animations, a truly affecting if mostly abstract journey through color and shape.
Johnsonäó»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 äóñ but none of their placards are entirely legible, rendering their demands broadly existential rather than fleetingly instrumental. Thatäó»s a step forward, I would argue, from the blunt messages tucked into Johnsonäó»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 äóñ but if youäó»d like to see them while theyäó»re fresh, Capäó»n Crunch shows through Nov. 12æat Freight and Volume, 97 Allen Street, New York, NY. Visit freightandvolume.com to find out more.