Demented and delightful, Brad Johnston's The Magic Theatre is a mashup of mythology puréed and spat out in artwork that feels both oddly familiar and brain-ticklingly strange. Johnston draws from countless narratives, including the Bible, Greek mythology, fairy tales, American folklore, maybe even a little Hayao Miyazaki, for an examination of belief, death, deceit, betrayal and the buff, heroic dudes that unite all such tales. The Magic Theatre has minotaurs, Cerberus hellhounds, anthropomorphic animals galore, and more bearded woodsmen than Brooklyn.
Johnston does it all: lithographs, paintings, drawings, sculpture, woodcuts, etchings, wooden skull banjos and miniature Kitty Kat proscenium stages. If you asked Johnston to whittle you a cocktail, he just might. Does the SCAD-Atlanta graduate student bite off more than he can chew? Perhaps. But MFA students anxious to account for how they spent the past two years often play the field a little.
The work is a reckoning with the great questions of life: Where do we go when we die? Who made us? Do you wanna buy a used watch? There is no better summation of the stakes of Johnston's game than "As Above, So Below" an epic graphite drawing in which above-ground animals engage in activities that intimate the great dirt nap ahead: Scampish monkeys wave portentous hourglasses to warn of the passage of time; a fox in a pope-hat preaches sermons about what's to come. All of these harbingers of mortality play out in the world below, which is hilariously demarcated with the kind of dashed line you'd find in a coloring book.
Johnston has a knack for rendering beady little penlight eyes and matted, musky fur in touchable veracity. If you are susceptible to fits of cooing at the sight of small woodland creatures engaged in irrepressible hijinks, prepare yourself for the cuteness juggernaut. Even when they're being stinkers, Johnston's critters are certifiably cuddly. No one sketches a stuffed monkey or a Scotty dog like this Connecticut native. But it's not all hugs and wet kisses in Johnston's world. There is also a diabolical streak among his animals, as evidenced by the highly inked oxen and badass bear whose missing eye suggests knife fights in Orlando biker bars or other unsavory backstories.
A favorite furry motif is Johnston's grifter fox often outfitted in an eye patch — think Fantastic Mr. Fox meets that ex-con with the roadside barbecue stand. If children's book illustrator Richard Scarry ever tried his hand at cataloguing vice, he could do no better than Johnston's etching "World of Trickery," a comprehensive breakdown of the many ways in which his feisty foxes can fleece their fellow forest folk. Your eyeballs blaze across the image taking in each instance of quaintly antiquated petty crime more delicious than the last: the dopey turtle preparing to sacrifice his pocket money in Mr. Fox's shell game, the dim-wit monkey about to get caught in Mr. Fox's carefully rigged trap baited with a pork chop. So cute! So naughty! So cautionary!