In 2008, at age 37, Will Johnson started painting in order to tell stories about baseball players.
The Texas-based musician and self-taught artist’s exhibition, “Every Player Is a Star: Will Johnson’s Baseball Paintings,” is on view at Team Love RavenHouse Gallery in New Paltz until September 7. The baseball card-esque portraits of players and demolished stadiums accompanied by hand-lettered text both pay tribute to baseball’s forgotten heroes and humanize the glorified idols of the game.
Babe Ruth, who looks up and out in his baseball cards as if at a ball sailing over the centerfield fence or his own larger-than-life image, gazes down with tired eyes in Johnson’s painting. The quiet solemnity of the image is countered with a more characteristic quote from the Bambino: “I swing big with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
In the same camp of baseball legends, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Jackie Robinson, but what about the guy who taught Robinson about the double play? Johnson shares the story of Willie Wells: the first shortstop in the Negro Leagues to combine fielding and home-run power, and the first player to use a batting helmet.
By favoring matter-of-fact biographical information over ornate odes, Johnson creates unassuming testimonies for his baseball heroes. Decentered portraits feature half faces that seem to creep in from some lost past, and the small text is visually demanding. The style, which physically draws viewers in, requires the kind of close attention that Johnson feels these individuals deserve. Johnson’s paintings will be exhibited through September 7 at Team Love RavenHouse Gallery in New Paltz. Team-love.com