Ezra Johnson: Cut Rate Paradise & Project Space: Bruce Kates: Mumbo Jumbo
DECEMBER 19, 2015–JANUARY 30, 2016
Mindy Solomon Gallery ended 2015 and began the new year with two artists, Ezra Johnson in the main gallery and Bruce Kates (aka the gallerist Fredric Snitzer, more on that later) in the front project space. Johnson’s show, Cut-Rate Paradise, is clearly set along the strip mall- and motel-lined highways of South Florida. He paints in a particular figurative style I associate with his birthplace in the San Francisco Bay Area; it harks back to Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn through the 1990s street art–inspired work of artists like Alicia McCarthy and Chris Johanson.
The style works just as well here in Florida to give a feeling for cracked, painted stucco facades and muddy parcels of drained swampland, all enveloped in thick humidity. Its contrast of muddy washes and drippy pop colors along with the jury-rigged support structures epitomize the aesthetics of life along and around Highway 41.
Johnson does a dexterous job of moving between the built elements of his paintings and their painted pictorial grid. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t come off as awkward, which it often does, and it can feel a bit contrived. But there was a lot of work on view. Like the lines of hotels that hide any chance for a glimpse of the sea, the show was knowingly overcrowded, failure presented as the equal of success.
It is worth mentioning that the faded glory depicted here may be fading, as well. If you detect a note of nostalgia in the work, it’s because another development boom is upon us and the charms of the cut-rate paradise are being replaced with a shiny new architecture of tropical opulence. There is a resemblance to Eddy Arroyo’s paintings of Little Haiti’s storefronts, but where Arroyo’s straightforward work details the cultural toll of development, Johnson is more winking and wry. The flexibility visible in Johnson’s work belies an artist’s survival skills in a paradise whose semiotic structures are in constant flux.
Snitzer’s attractive assemblages in the front gallery echo the concrete aspects of Johnson’s paintings. His works have an effortless manner that can sometimes make art seem like a little work of magic, as in the floor piece, Homage to Rafa (2015). Made of found materials, mostly painted wood, they benefit from a designer’s eye and a comfortable knowledge of art history.
It’s difficult to imagine the artists weren’t scheduled together so that their aesthetics might compliment one another. Unfortunately, as a result of their proximity, Snitzer suffers too much from the weight of comparison. Where Johnson’s best work is off-kilter, semantically destabilized, and open to possibility, Snitzer’s comes off as aloof, eschewing messiness and experimentation.
This brings me to Snitzer’s use of an alias. No real ruse seemed intended, as he represented himself in the flesh at the show’s opening reception and Mindy Solomon was almost too eager to share his real identity. But it seemed disingenuous, as it makes one wonder whether Snitzer was embarrassed to be perceived as staging a vanity exhibition at a colleague’s venue. What might have been an opportunity to play with the performance of an identity, staging the exhibition of an unknown artist, comes off as a timid refusal of ownership. Of course, such a hoax would have been difficult, if not impossible, to maintain in Miami’s small art scene. This just made it seem a little smaller.