A few years ago, Johnny Robles was walking on the beach near Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas when he came across a wrecked boat. The inside was cluttered with condom wrappers, water bottles, and syringes.
A thunderbolt and the name of the band AC/DC were painted on the side along with the words, in Spanish, "May God bless us." A tractor motor was bolted to the back and painted red to prevent rust.
Robles, a bearded artist with bright-blue eyes and the lithe build of a long-distance runner, immediately realized Cubans had used the vessel to cross the Florida Straits.
"It was like a weird art installation in front of me in this desolate location," the 30-year-old says. "It put into perspective how far people will go to pursue their dreams."
Robles too has come a long way to present his first gallery solo show, "Let It Slide," on view at Spinello Projects. His conceptual playground includes several slides, spring riders, a pogo stick, a whirling teeter-totter, and a collapsed swing set.
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"For me, these playscapes are a way to retrace memories of my own childhood," he says. "I was easily distracted and often bored as a kid...The goal is to provoke a dream state... where memory is active and not passive."
Robles grew up in an artistic family in West Miami. His Irish mom, Jeanne, was a teacher, and his Puerto Rican-Colombian dad, Mario, played jazz percussion with Carlos Santana and Tito Puente. His father, he adds, also loved diving and was a pilot -- a "true renaissance man."
From a young age, Robles was fascinated with graffiti -- "letters that seemed to have their own personality, and that really struck a chord." Sometimes, he says, he liked to paint alone, in areas where people would discover his work.