Water and humor are central themes in Bhakti Baxter's "First Light," the artist's third solo exhibition, opening today at the contemporary art space Nina Johnson. The show features a new series of Baxter's water-based drawings, handcrafted surfboards, and bug-eyed and eyeless "coco locos" — character sculptures created with detritus gathered during canoe trips on Biscayne Bay.
"First Light" represents the latest chapter of Baxter's long art career in Miami. The artist has been active in the local scene since the 1990s, running alternative art space the House with Daniel Arsham, Martin Oppel, and Tao Rey. Today, the Institute of Contemporary Art and Pérez Art Museum are among the institutions that have his wall sculptures, paintings, and installations in their collections.
New Times spoke with Baxter just after he finished installing the exhibition.
New Times: Why is water so important to you and this exhibition?
Bhakti Baxter: Water is the element I've grown up in and around since my early childhood years here in Miami. Snorkeling, surfing, jumping off bridges, canoeing... These were the things we did. Being in the water, and surfing in particular, is the activity I most enjoy.
Doesn't "First Light" reflect more than just a Florida boy's fascination with the coast? It illuminates, intentionally or not, the impact that water and, more specific, climate change will have on the region and the world in the coming decades.
Water continues to shape this city... When I looked at the work I've made in the past two years it all could be traced back to water. Now there are much bigger issues going on in the world in regards to protecting water that I feel strongly about, but the work in the exhibition was never deliberately intended to be political.
That's where humor steps in, in the form of the Cocos Locos — the series of readymade sculptures that force a smile out of even the most jaded viewer. Why these crazy coconuts?
This Coco Loco series is another way of embracing the landscape that I've found myself in all these years. It's folk art, if you can call it that. It's seeing the readymade in the stuff that's immediately available in this environment. Most of the materials were found on the beach or the islands in Biscayne Bay. It's trash, some natural and other manmade. The cocos locos tell me what to do. They are already there, so to speak, and I add as little as possible to give them the personality they already have. They have names. The expression in the faces of the majority are of being overwhelmed or pretty blown away at what they see. They are funny, they are raw, and it's OK to laugh and see ourselves in them.
I see myself in all of them, especially in the coco loco with the big mouth and multicolored eyes, which reminds me of something that bothers me about contemporary art: It doesn't usually reflect the viewer and often reflects a very narrow idea of who the viewer should be. Do you think contemporary art lacks humor?
Contemporary art is a mixed bag. Some art made today has a great sense of humor, but I don't have much of an opinion on contemporary art. I'm just trying to do what feels right to me in this place and time.
What would you have done differently and/or explored more while putting this exhibition together?
I would have liked to have made more surfboards. It's a craft I just started, and it was a way of bridging my love for surf with art-making. I build the surfboards from start to finish. They are very labor-intensive, and there are many things to learn along the way. I'm just getting the hang of it. It would be great if there was a glasser [someone who does the resin and fiberglass] in Miami.
Opens Tuesday, November 1, with a reception from 7 to 10 p.m. at Nina Johnson, 6315 NW Second Ave., Miami. The show runs through November 26. Admission is free. Visit ninajohnson.com.