Miami State of Mind
Claire Breukel talks with Josh Aronson about Tropicana, the Miami artist’s current exhibition in the Miami Design District
Josh Aronson is a man of diverse talents. At the tender age of 27, he is already a well-known artist and photographer—and now design collector. Like many Miami natives in creative fields, he left to study and work, first Chicago followed by New York. Upon his sudden return last year, he wholeheartedly re-embraced his hometown. Weaving the local urban-tropical landscape into his practice, Aronson has imbued his work with an ethos of joy and community, exemplifying all that is celebrated about Miami’s lush and gritty beauty.
In his Miami Design District-debut solo exhibition Tropicana, Aronson has installed his photographic portraits of Florida’s up and coming creative talents alongside his own vintage design collection, which he actively acquired over the past year while nesting at home during the pandemic.
Miami Design District curator Claire Breukel talks with Aronson about his latest project, his outlook on Miami, and his newfound thirst for design collecting.
Claire Breukel: Depicting creative youths from Miami, your Tropicana photography series is inspired by what you describe as autobiographical experience. What themes are you exploring in these representations of promising young people?
Josh Aronson: I’m interested in exploring ideas of utopia, childlike innocence, and bliss. With the young up-and-coming artists that I photograph, I’m often using our place in the world as young Floridians to fuel the direction my photos take. For example, if in your childhood you’d played with ladybugs, I wouldn’t shy away from making a photograph about that. My work is autobiographical, yes. But I'm likewise open to allowing my collaborators’ life experiences to influence me and the narratives we’re creating.
CB: You were born in Miami, studied in Chicago, and worked in New York before returning to Miami at the start of the Covid 19 pandemic. How has your view of the city evolved now that you have returned?
JA: I have a deeper appreciation for Miami now. As a kid, I caught a classic case of the-grass-is always-greener mindset. I’d never thought much of Miami until I left. Now, for me, Miami is optimal; I make the work that I want to make here and am joined by friends from New York, Chicago, and elsewhere day by day. To be a local in a place where everyone’s flocking to is a unique, special experience.
CB: How would you describe the state of photography as a medium in Florida today?
JA: Thriving! I love where my fellow Florida photographers are pushing the medium. I’m really taken by Rose Marie Cromwell’s work, as well as the work of Monica Uszerowicz and Anastasia Samoylova. There’s a really strong female voice shepherding the medium here right now, and that’s really exciting to me.
CB: Your recent publication Tropicana has sold out. What did it mean for you to have your work contextualized in this publication?
JA: Everything! I always dreamed of working in print. I’m obsessed with the tactile nature of publications. And having been a photo book nerd for years, it was crucial to my relationship to the form to make a book of my own. That it sold out in both editions the way it did was the cherry on top.
CB: When did you start collecting furniture and what motivated you to start this collection?
JA: I started collecting vintage furniture, plastics, and design goods at the end of 2020. I was motivated by this very of-the-moment need to accessorize my home—much in the same vein as I might have accessorized my wrists or my laptop with stickers back in the day. The more time I spent at home, the more I became aware of my surroundings. It wasn’t enough for me to be in the company of a handful of childhood furniture pieces the way I was. I needed something more interesting if I was going to spend so much time at home without wanting to tear it all apart!
CB: Why did you decide to collect specifically furniture made from plastics between 1960 and 1980?
JA: Plastics were a seamless fit for me. I’m very big on bold, bright colors, and vintage plastics from as early as the 1960s largely adopted primary, saturated colorways. That, and I developed a love for giving new life to these plastics, which, as we know, would otherwise struggle to be recycled in a meaningful way.
There’s also something—which I only realized during the exhibition—that plastics and my work share. I’m interested in creating fantasy worlds through my photography, and there’s quite a bit of fantasy surrounding plastics. Not only in their fantastical forms and richness of color but also in the cultural narratives they are accompanied by. Plastics were always about “the future,”a gateway into the space age and beyond. When I see my work next to my plastics, I realize that I too have been trying to get somewhere else in my photography: somewhere magical, surreal, and perhaps even a little space age-y.
CB: How else do you see these furniture works in dialogue with your photography in the exhibition?
JA: The link between my photography and these furniture works is the question I hope the exhibition poses to anyone walking through. I have my ideas about what connects the two, but, ultimately, it’s up to everyone to say how and why they relate. You know, the more I got into vintage and designer furniture, the more I began to wonder what it all meant for me as a practicing artist. What was the place of my work among all of these historical, lauded pieces? I’m using the exhibition as a means to figure that out.
CB: You've explained the Tropicana exhibition in the Miami Design District as a moment for sharing your work and collection. What do you hope visitors will come away with after seeing the show?
JA: My hope is to see them gain a newfound appreciation for their local surroundings. Visitors to Tropicana have commented on the ways that the show helped them to see the beauty of the architecture in the Miami Design District. For other visitors, the show has reignited their love of natural sites in Florida, such as the Everglades.
It’s also my hope that you might go home and find a new way to see your own furniture—vintage or otherwise. It’s about giving someone that opportunity to think about what they normally overlook in their day to day.
CB: You are 27 and already have a photography career, a publication, and now a private design collection. What words do you have for young people entering the creative fields today?
JA: To anyone young, I would say be your own biggest cheerleader. I can’t tell you how often I have shouted for my own work louder than anyone else. In our fast-paced world, where minds move miles a minute, you can’t expect someone to keep you top-of-mind all the time. You’re going to have to cheer yourself on while reminding others that you’re here, ready to work and eager to engage the world. ◆
Tropicana, photographer Josh Aronson’s intimate, sun-soaked vision of Miami life, is on view in Paradise Plaza in the Miami Design District until April 15, 2021.