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Gallery View: Arthaus chalks up another exhibit

To celebrate Black History Month, Arthaus is presenting “Blackboard Veve Painting,” a series of abstract works created by Allentown-based artist Femi J. Johnson.

The 26 pieces were completed by Johnson in the Hamilton Street studio he shares with two other artists during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020.

The exhibition, along with several works by Cuban artist Cuty Ragazzone, continues through March 21 in the community art space at 645 West Hamilton St., Allentown.

Johnson says he reflected inwardly for inspiration for “Blackboard Veve #8: Exotic Conjure or Magie du bosquet (Magic of the grove)” (2020; acrylic on canvas, 30 in. x 40 in.) and other works in the series.

Johnson explains that he goes to “that secret sweet place inside of us, that secret garden that we go to for our own comfort.” He says that he seeks his happiness from within to provide the energy for his paintings.

The artist creates the illusion that the canvas is an old slate blackboard. Painted chalk-like lines and erasure marks enhance the semblance. Colorful abstract shapes are layered over this.

Johnson says some of the markings are drawn from his smaller sketches, which he refers to as “Marks of Existence.”

The various shades of green he paints on the surface are reminiscent of green porcelain-based enamel chalkboards from the 1960s.

The “blackboard” art begins dark, reflecting the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sense of turning inward.

With later works in the series, the backgrounds and colors layered over them transition to brighter, cheerier hues. The paintings suggest an expression of inner joy radiating outward.

“It’s exciting to see the strokes slow down, the colors becomes more somber, and yet there’s moments of electricity that happen in these paintings,” says curator Deborah Rabinsky. For her, the lighter works create a sense of “moving on.”

Johnson, originally from New York City and raised in Easton, studied studio art at Hudson Valley College. He has also worked as a master draftsman and designer.

Cuban artist Cuty Ragazzone brings playful bathroom humor to the gallery. Framed and unframed ink and wash drawings from The W Collection feature a peek at half-dressed women occupying the most private room of any house.

Rabinsky explains that Ragazzone’s risqué, yet not obscene, drawings were chosen to salute Valentine’s Day. The works depict everyday intimacy experienced by couples living under the same roof.

These are not so much a tribute to traditional romance. “It’s a celebration of life and silliness and things we hide,” says Rabinsky with a chuckle. “That’s where all the potties come in to play.”

“Walking into three different restaurants in Havana over the last three years, I found Cuty’s works hanging in the restrooms,” states Bruce Waldman from The W Collection. “Old traditional restaurants and cool, new, trendy restaurants all are proud to display his creations on their walls,” he continues.

Born in 1960 as Gustavo Cesar Echevarria, Cuty Ragazzone lives and works in Havana, Cuba.

Arthaus is a partnership between RE:find and the Allentown Arts Commission.

Arthaus, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. allentownarts.com; 610-841-4866

“Gallery View” is a column about artists, exhibitions and galleries. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

PRESS PHOTO BY ED COURRIER Femi J. Johnson with “Blackboard Veve #8: Exotic Conjure or Magie du bosquet (Magic of the grove)” (2020; acrylic on canvas, 30 in. x 40 in.).