It’s been a long time coming—17 years to be exact. That’s when visual artist Ronnie Land last showed his work here in his hometown. With Homeland, his upcoming exhibit at The Second Floor space in Five Points, Land hopes to rectify that. From the ’80s until Land (aka R. Land) moved to Atlanta more than 25 years ago, his art was a ubiquitous, quixotic and darkly humorous visual presence in Northeast Florida’s artistic landscape. Creatures appearing both sweet and sinister—at times simultaneously in a toothy grin—were Land’s common models and icons. After it arrived in 1987, the glowering rabbit beast Little Bunny Foo Foo scowled from countless stickers slapped on seemingly every available light pole, bumper and punk-rock club wall.
The Homeland exhibit features large-format paintings, smaller drawings and silkscreen works, along with assemblages. “There isn’t really any serious theme other than I haven’t put forth any real serious effort in having a show in Jacksonville for so long,” says Land, from his studio space in Atlanta. “It’s the largest collection of my work exhibited. It has new work and some older ‘greatest hits.’ I don’t know if I’d call it a retrospective so that’s why I’m really calling it my ‘homecoming” show.”
Nature and creatures are prominent in Land’s art, albeit morphed and mutated at times. It’s a world where cats, birds, sea creatures and insects stare at you with jaundiced eyes; their expressions are either welcoming or warning. Using multimedia materials helps Land utilize tonal washes that evoke movement and life force.
Since relocating to Atlanta, Land has become a force to be reckoned with. A series of murals and Situationist-style street art projects, including his now-legendary Loss Cat poster, have consistently displayed his work globally to new (and even unsuspecting) audiences; Loss Cat was even incorporated in a merchandise line by Urban Outfitters. Pop culture has embraced Land’s work, which has been featured in films and television shows including Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Walking Dead. Proving that the greater society will at times embrace left-of-field visual art, Land’s praying hands of his poignantly iconic Pray for ATL is now displayed in the Atlanta History Center and Georgia State Capitol. Land’s website (rlandart.com) is a wellspring of images and up-to-date news items, giving a wider view of his body of work, if not ethos.
Yet, despite his success, unlike the majority of people and organizations hoping for mass, tendril-spread promotion, Land is uncomfortable attaching his face to what he does. “I’m not the face of what I do since most people don’t even know what I look like,” says Land of his rare stance of anonymity, if not counter-celebrity in our attention-slappy culture.
Years of visibility aside, Land is reticent to “describe” his art; not out of coyness but more out of perplexity. “I can tell people, ‘I’m an artist,’ but I have never been able to tell them ‘what I do.’ I started out not really taking it that seriously and just wanted to have fun. I mean, I have serious ideas about a lot of things, but I don’t take myself seriously. If I’m not having fun, why bother?”
With Homeland, Land returns to his origins. A Northside native, Land says his family’s local roots go back to the 1840s, when they moved from Ireland to Savannah and then Jacksonville. The Lands settled in New Berlin. “My mom told me stories about life growing up on the river on Heckscher Drive. I grew up listening to stories about my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather and looking at all of these old pictures as well,” says Land. “That strip on Main Street between Heckscher Drive and Andrew Jackson High School and Springfield … Kirby Smith. That’s like what I understood to be the center of the universe when I was growing up. So Homeland is a love letter to the city.”
Land is returning that affection in kind. For one Homeland piece, Battel of Gients, Land collaborated with students from Pine Castle. Proceeds for that piece benefit the school and a silent auction is underway at 32auctions.com/rland4pinecastle. A donation of $5 at the door goes directly to the St. Johns Riverkeeper and cash bar proceeds benefit the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.
Land acknowledges that the inspiration for this show was also encouraged by this spring’s Folio Weekly “30 Legends of Northeast Florida” issue (April 5). The artist was featured, celebrating his pioneering impact on this city’s art scene, inspiring younger artists who probably knew him only by his ubiquitous imagery that permeated alternative youth culture.
“My brother Joel sent me that. When I read it, I said, ‘Aw, man-love from my hometown!” he laughs. “That about melted me and I got a lot of response from that [story] from people who live there. So after reading that I thought, ‘I really want to go back home’ and the exhibit is about where I’m from and just wanting to connect again.
R. Land’s Homeland opening reception is 6 p.m.-midnight, Saturday, Sept. 23 at The Second Floor (above Hoptinger), Riverside, thesecondfloorjax.com. Homeland runs through October.