Amy Johnson wants to knock art off its altar and drag it back to the street, where it belongs.
When the veteran of the West Coast DIY scene arrived in Miami last year, she felt like she had parachuted into Hell. "The art scene here seems very elitist and institutional," she says.
She and other likeminded indie activists have formed DIY:MIA, a grassroots group that supports "artwork of interaction, not merely consumption, always on the outside, anonymous, and yet everywhere you look," according to its founders.
At first glance, the baby-faced 27-year-old doesn't look like your average boho firebrand; she seems more like she is ready to pose for her high school yearbook picture. Johnson wears sensible business attire during a recent visit to the Miami International University of Art & Design (MIU), where she works as an administrative assistant and has organized her first local show.
She says DIY:MIA was modeled after organizations such as the Independent Publishing Resource Center, the Materials Exchange Center for Community Arts, and the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, all based in Oregon.
"Basically the idea is to create and support a grassroots arts movement which encourages community arts opportunities and spaces. The focus is on the art and artist but also the interaction with the community. A key aspect is creating opportunities that are affordable and approachable," Johnson explains. She admits that if similar organizations exist here, she has not found them, and says she and her peers are eager to plug in.
Her fledgling group launched a word-of-mouth campaign calling for do-it-yourselfers to unite for a street art exhibit at MIU. The result, "Tear/Off," has drawn more than 50 artists and collectives from the United States and countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Indonesia.
"It's been crazy," Johnson muses. "We put it together in just two months. It was sort of a network situation where some artists knew others and people began talking about it with friends and responded quickly."
Displayed in the university's aquariumlike reception area, which doubles as a gallery, the mishmash exhibit features hundreds of works ranging from graffiti, handmade books and zines, posters, stickers, plush toys, and photographs, to silk-screened T-shirts and experimental films. The works hang salon style, cover nearly every available inch of wall space, and exude a hyperschizzy air of global street culture run rampant or a love of art that crested in teenageland.
A small mixed-media-on-cardboard collage by Miami's Louis Ortega depicts a scruffy-chinned, golf-ball-headed dolt with a speech bubble above his noggin. It reads, "Graffiti ate my moma."
Stomach, by Claire Chambers of Absolutely Small, is a painting of what appears to be a turnip with chicken legs. The California artist fares better with her plush toys and buttons, arranged in a Plexiglas case nearby. One of her diminutive creatures looks like an Ewok from Star Wars. Chambers's Pretty Girls Make Graves, a cross-stitch collage, also grabs attention.
One of the problems with the show is that it lacks a curatorial eye. In trying to maintain a raw edge, Johnson seems to have crammed every submission she received into the space, fusing a whole mess of youthful sensibilities from the angular forms of graffiti to pastoral psychedelia to stuff that tries too hard to look like art — and fails.
A large graffiti-tagged cardboard panel by S. Andali is covered in blurred-out green and black script and accented by baby blue thunderbird chevrons stenciled across the piece. Inexplicably three heinous mixed-media canvases by Brian Larossa Pedrosa have been strung across Andali's work. The canvases look like gilded, syrupy toxic spills and have nothing in common with the stronger work.
Across from that eyesore, Frenchman Jef Aerosol weighs in with spray-paint-on-canvas portraits of Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Syd Barrett, and Brian Jones. The small pieces are among the most polished paintings in the show, but they belong more in a gallery than on the street, fogging up the show's premise.
Above them Muerto Konsumer keeps it gritty with his caffeinated cutouts of beer bottles, skulls, curb zombies, and work-addled business dudes. The local lad paints his whimsical figures onto street maps, cuts them out, and pastes them onto buildings and telephone poles around town.
Another artist who takes her work to the people — hoping passersby will snatch her canvases off the street and take them home — is London's Beautifully Urban. Two of her juicy book-sized pieces, dripping paint and covered with biomorphic blobs, nearly get lost in the shuffle.
Ezekandy, a Swedish collective, offers up bubblegum graphics that pulsate with energy in a few of the digital prints on display. The group typically prints them as posters exhibited on the street or in public places for admirers to cart away. One depicts a mushroom-coiffed pixie standing against a rainbow-burst background with spray paint cans bouncing near her bandaged knees.
Some of the more unusual works are paper toys by Indonesia's IndieGuerrillas. The funky origamilike characters look like moose-antlered robots, wacky DJs, or mutant veg heads. This collective, like many others here, also contributed tons of art stickers to the show.
Walking through the ephemera-happy exhibit, one might feel as if Johnson is trying too hard to brain us with a bag of bricks. For example, one barely registers Ugly Eps's hand-screened words on pages ripped from a dictionary.
Mythos: AKA Jeff Meadows's anemic collages on wood pieces have little to say. A measly piece simply features a crumpled, empty pack of Camel cigarettes glued to a rotting chunk of wood. The San Fran artist has also glued photocopies of what appear to be cartoonish, pug-nosed amputees on aged wood and then petrified them with thick coats of varnish.
Foster City's Thylacine Graphics is represented by two drawings on multilingual manuals for computer equipment. One depicts a gazellelike creature sporting a suit and breathing out daffodils.
The exhibit also includes a modest sampling of zines by artists from New York, California, and England.
Johnson says she has also been collaborating with local collective Firefly, "a venue for creative breathing and imperfection," which runs a zine-lending library out of its NE 20th Street digs. Johnson invited the group to the opening reception to spread the DIY gospel to the crowd.
The unabashed DIYer says she is slowly discovering others happy to foster community among the Miami hipsters who remain off the grid.
"I wasn't too worried about trying to curate a show, but wanted more of a collaborative spirit to come through," Johnson says with a sigh. In her first effort out of the gate, it shows.