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.
Creating tags around the neighborhood, Robles and his friends often kept in touch with one another by walkie-talkie to avoid getting caught in the act. But "when I later got busted doing it and my mom had to pick me up at the police station, she threw out all my graffiti magazines, so I became more focused afterward."
He found some stability at Southwest Miami Senior High after bouncing around from school to school in his formative years. After graduation, he attended the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where he graduated with honors and earned a BFA in illustration and sculpture in 2007.
While studying at MICA, Robles participated in a yearlong exchange project that took him to Florence, Italy, which he had wanted to visit since high school. He studied art history, conservation, and the restoration of frescoes at places such as the Medici Chapel.
"I was able to experience my textbooks in real life," he says. "I was determined to master anatomy and the human figure and concepts of light and form."
He discovered that a young Michelangelo had shared his interest in graffiti and employed the same etching techniques Robles had used to leave his own mark for posterity in West Miami.
In what folks back home called "scratchiti," Michelangelo had used a sharp instrument to scratch imagery into a wall on a dare. He had carved the image of a man's face without even looking at it; to avoid being detected by his instructors and to show he was the most talented among his peers, he had held his hands behind his back.
Robles also says that while visiting Florence, he learned to appreciate the science behind the Renaissance masters' works and gained more freedom to begin experimenting on his own.
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The results are on view at Spinello Projects, where Robles' slides rest on concrete pillows, his seesaw spins not unlike whirling helicopter blades, and his spring riders are cast from twisting lumps of what appears to be polished sea glass.
Some of the more striking works on display are soap bubble-like dollops of molten plastic that seem to be frozen in midair in the act of oozing out of their wooden frames. "The idea for those came from those soap bubbles every kid loves playing with," the artist says. "I made them in a huge pizza oven where I sandwiched plastic sheets between wood before melting them in the heat to form them into these shapes.
"They're like the foam and fizzies you see bubbling up from a boat's wake or from kids blowing up big soap bubbles. I just wanted to create these large forms you see in nature unexpectedly."