By: Camila Álvarez
It feels nice and chilly when I walk into the studio; everything seems to be in its right place. The high warehouse ceilings double the illusion of spaciousness and I can smell incense and hearBoards of Canada—his favorite band— playing in the background. Johnny sits on a cool, old school, leather office chair right in front of the small couch where I’m sitting. Next to us sits a rusty, metallic slide that looks as if it had been ripped off from an ancient playground.
There’s a large panoramic, grayscale drawing still in process on the wall behind him— an elongated bubble connecting the featureless profile of a boy on the left side of the paper and the one of a girl on the right side. It’s beautifully creepy and haunting. I’m staring at it when he looks at me and asks me: “so why are you here?”
Johnny’s creativity is fueled by nostalgia. Instead of illustrating feelings from his past, he likes to use them as doors he enters to tap into inspiration, retracing them and reinterpreting them. When I asked him to tell me a little bit about himself, he told me that he would start by telling me a little bit about his childhood: “I spent most of my childhood at recreation centers, pools, and with friends and family […]”, he explained. There’s some sort of ontological security he finds in the process of remembering, as if memories were anchors he throws in a sea of randomness.
After years of painting cool murals, such as “Detached Woman and Detached Man”—the beautiful diptych of a couple uncovering their colorful bodies he painted outside Cafeina in Wynwood in 2010, and having a series of successful group and solo shows that included drawings, paintings, installations, and sculptures— Johnny feels he has pushed a reset button. He has entered a new introspective stage in which he is striving to take his thought process further, to be more honest, disregarding the repercussions this might have on his “success”.
Johnny studied fine arts at the Studio Art Center International in Florence, Italy and in the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), from which he received his BFA. He explored many mediums: photography, sculpture, textiles, drawing, painting, ultimately graduating in illustration. He will have a solo show at Spinello Projects in October.
We chatted with him about his work in the streets and in the studio and about the integration of childhood into adulthood, one of the most important themes in his art…
CD: Tell me a little bit about yourself…
JR: I’ll tell you a bit more about my childhood…I am a native of Miami, FL born into a multicultural family in 1984. Growing up in Miami, I spent most of my childhood at recreation centers, pools, and with friends and family. As I was growing up I liked building and drawing and since I was the only child, I had no other choice but to entertain myself or watch PBS. When I wasn’t at the park I’d always find things to create, slingshots, blowguns using flowers, ball pins, straws, or whatever. I would get really curious sometimes too and sneak around the house exploring for cool shit. My grandfather had an extensive collection of DIY books, scuba dive gear, encyclopedias I loved dabbling through, especially the anatomical ones that had separate transparent pages for bones, muscles and organs. My parents thought I’d grow into becoming an actor, since I was such a prankster and always playing roles of other people.
When did you decide to be an artist?
My mom asked what I’d like to be when I grow up and I said an artist and a scientist. Then she asked if I’d like to be in a school with other children my age that liked to build and create, just like me. I would get to have art class for 2 hours or more a day. I was accepted to this school and I had a great 2-year experience at 9yrs of age studying art and photography. I was a stranger to everyone coming from another school my first day in junior high. I can remember walking on the hall outside and finding walls of gang writing. It was so stylized that the letters and symbols looked like stick figures to me by the way each letter bent or contorted. This writing stuck with me after standing in front of it…the idea of how someone had just vandalized the property and probably wasn’t seen in the act was thought provoking— the anonymous figure creating something or leaving a message for another to experience. After junior high school I continued with the art thing and playing ball in school. I failed all of my art classes and was told I’d be held back if I didn’t pass my senior year classes. Lucky for me, I found another art teacher that loved me dearly and believed in me. Hah! I was always a good student in all subjects except one. I wrote goals, letters, and poems about my philosophy of life and time on a final exam sheet. She agreed to pass me if I gave her ten original paintings.
Nice ha-ha. And then you went to art school?
Oh, I was still indecisive about what I wanted to do. I went to a community college for about half a semester, and I was kind of clashing with the art professor there, unfortunately. Although we bumped heads, he wrote a very honest letter of recommendation for me and shortly after I received a ride to The Maryland Institute College of Art, where I obtained a BFA in 2007. In between studying there I went abroad to study in Italy for 1 year. I spent a lot of time traveling and studying art history and fresco conservation and restoration.
And what did you do once you finished school?
My work at the time was lacking focus or direction so I took a break to reset and travel for 1 year and returned to Miami, interested in working with children. I started out introducing small assignments to help kids prep or build their portfolios to get into art magnet schools like the one I went to. Teaching was fun and draining all at once, definitely rewarding.
What was your work like back then?
High school was very surreal for me, so was my work. Towards the end and beginning of college it became very figurative. I loved the human figure. Especially when I was studying in Italy I was thinking in a very traditional and academic way. I thought that nothing else really mattered more than being true to your eye and understanding the anatomy, light, form and you know, painting from life, ONLY. That idea changed after a while because naturally, I’ve always drawn from my memory or imagination.
What about your involvement in the street art world now and then?
Graffiti always interested me. To me that was street art—thought provoking images that forced you to question yourself and the environment around you. Today street art has gone viral and is everywhere, good or bad. It made an impression on me growing up. Starting from elementary school, I remember driving in the car with my mother. I would see it in the streets all over. Sometimes I would tell my mom to pull over so I could take a picture of it. The feeling of being in front of it was haunting cause I understood the person who did it was standing there too. From those experiences and then afterwards, time I made exploring different material/mediums I’ve made many different transitions with my work. When I decided finally to paint a large legal wall I was going through a change. I aimed to merge the respect and love I had for graffiti and traditional painting. I think that for a good ten years I was trying to find this balance between the two. I painted a few murals beginning in 2010-2012. Since then, I’ve been devoting more time working in my studio exploring again.
Was the work you were doing in the streets similar to the other work you were doing?
No, for some reason, the work I’ve produced in the streets tends to become a little more pop than I anticipate, but its origins come from something a bit more conceptual than what it might seem. So, for example, the idea for the piece at Cafeina: “Detached Woman and Detached Man”, sparked from a audio cassette tape I had in my car. I was trying to make out what it was speaking of since it was such an old tape warped by the sun, you know, plus it was recorded over another recording from the 70’s, and in an out from that distortion, I would hear pieces of these teachings from India translated from Hindi to English. And this quote or phrase came out in the middle of it that said: “Man is like a covered lantern,” and when I heard this, I was on my way to a meeting with the owners of that building. I had no idea what to expect, I didn’t even know what the surface was going to be like. I kept the quote in mind along with other ideas I had been thinking of.
When was that?
That was in the beginning of 2010.
Will you continue to make more work like this?
Possibly different,but yes, I plan to paint more and continue producing new murals beginning next year.
How was Wynwood back then?
So different. There weren’t any stores around just a few galleries and the locals. I remember having a deadline of like three days and I was painting all through the night hearing gunfire, you know. Homeless guys coming around asking if they could help. It was a good experience.
Was that the beginning of a new chapter of you as an artist?
I think it was a transition. It gave me the opportunity to explore something new. I don’t do to well when people respond to my work differently than I do. I got a lot of positive responses to that piece years after I created it. And, you know, I run through work so quickly that sometimes I’m in the middle of creating a piece and I immediately want to go the next. That’s when discipline comes in and you have to follow through and then you carry on to the next. I had that feeling when I was painting. The feeling of what it was supposed to look like and feel, and I wanted to move on to something new. And I’ve always questioned this commitment to creating a consistent body of work. I’m a little against that in some ways cause I think that everyone evolves and if you evolve from life experiences, I feel that your work should too, just as fast.
What did you do after that?
After that piece, I did a really large mural for CIFO in downtown. That was a very overwhelming experience for me. I kind of approached it very free and experimental. It was a little different for me in terms of scale, location, you know, I was really out of my comfort zone too. I ran into a lot of obstacles, but there were a lot of moments in there that I really enjoyed. I kept that piece basically all in color, maintaining the same treatment as the piece I did for Cafeina, but without the classical elements rendered.
What were the biggest obstacles?
I was inches away from power lines and I was using an indoor scissor lift and my wheels were almost bare after couple days of using the lift. The sidewalk was narrow uneven, and you know, those sorts of things I don’t mind cause you kind of take the risk already when you are doing graffiti, but things had changed for me, and I wanted to be able to paint something comfortably without putting my life in danger for a mural. It rained everyday too, so I was like constantly setting up, scaffolds, getting everything organized, color orders…it was kind of a mess [laughs]. But hey, these are the things that make life interesting.
Are you a neat freak?
No, I mean,some people I know say I’m really organized and meticulous about things. I am, but in many ways I’m not. It’s not always what it seems. I’m definitely aware of always approaching my work methodically, and I always leave an even percentage to improvise. It’s very important for me to at least have a game plan to get me started.
What do you think is your major source of inspiration?
Nature. Complex paradigms shaped or changed by nature and nostalgic visions of childhood.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m producing work for a solo show in October at Anthony Spinello’s Gallery.
What themes are you dealing with?
I’ve been trying to reverse the state of childhood into adulthood and attempting to retrace ambiguous memories or feelings of my childhood and my fascination with science and nature. It starts out with daydreaming, which most adults don’t do anymore. I thought it would be appropriate to create something where people can play out loud for others as well as for themselves to experience. It involves emotive perceptual associations such as play, interaction, elation and control.
What is it that you miss or feel you’ve lost?
My childhood. It could be the happy feelings, or a sad feeling, just those fleeting moments, the transitory. People forget. They forget how to be a child.
I think that what changes is that we start to be very aware of the passage of time. When we were children, we didn’t have that awareness, so we were freer in a way. I miss that a lot.
Yeah, definitely. And as we grow older we require more responsibilities which I believe is natural, but I think it’s important to be like a child, to hold that sort of light and curiosity. That’s one of my attempts, to sort of reverse this state of childhood into adulthood.
Could you tell me how that idea is represented in any of your pieces?
Yeah, for example, this series: Let it Slide. A lot of these pieces were drawings before. They were more like studies, ideas that I had. There were objects that I saw as art pieces, they were very important pieces of equipment for me when I was growing up, that helped me understand gravity and my weight, and challenge my strength, you know, my will and greatness, it was playscapes.
One afternoon I went for a drive around my old stomping grounds. I thought to visit my elementary school, just cause I wanted to see what the feeling was like and what things have changed. I also visited a park which I grew up in and noticed construction workers removing playground equipment and building right over what used to be the playscape my parents and I grew up in as a children. This equipment was from the 50’s – 60’. My uncle and father had interacted with a lot of pieces, so these playscapes carried lots of energy and history that ran through them for me. It was weird, I had this slide in the back of my jeep and I kept looking at it, as if had just gotten a new toy or something. I just keep looking at this thing and I was so happy that I had this piece of equipment. It carried so much emotion for me. I was just happy to have it; I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. During the same year, I would drive up visit my grandparents in North Florida, and I used to take this scenic route down on 27th Ave. Id run into all these thrift stores and churches, tons of them on my way up. So I stopped at almost every one.
I came across more equipment and begin to believe that this was the material I had to use for my next body of work. During this investigative process, I questioned how I could incorporate my own language and materials with these pieces. I had a slide without a ladder, a spring rocker without the saddle. It challenged me to think differently and gave me a wonderful opportunity to interact with these pieces that were salvaged from the past.
I try to keep the surface of the work very minimalistic. It’s sort of an unconscious thing that happens. After the piece is completed I then begin to question the place where this comes from in my mind. I’m always questioning what part is conscious and what is unconscious when viewing a piece of art. Creations are not mere objects, but rather, they are the interfaces between the creator’s childhood and our collective-cultural past.
*This interview was originally published on Culture Designers