The week that the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles opened its survey of 60 photographs by Larry Johnson, the newspapers were saturated with celebrity death: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. All were icons who died amid revelations of bankruptcy, booze and drugs. The wall-to-wall media coverage of heir deaths was a fitting accompaniment to the preoccupations of Johnson’s art.
After completing his graduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts in 1984, Johnson made his first big splash with a six-panel photographic piece. The names of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Natalie Wood, James Dean and Sal Mineo -- who remain celebrities for their bizarre and tragic deaths as much as for their talent -- were floated on a blue background with cotton wool clouds. They were immortalized in a heavenly context conceived by a studio art director like the credits at the end of a movie. In this singular piece, he joined a movement of other young artists like his friend Richard Prince in using photography and text to explore a mediated world but with sardonic humor and rebellious unconcern for the strictures of structuralism. Johnson has continued to explore the theme of celebrity, which is to say L.A. itself.
Not since Ed Ruscha has there been an artist who so completely captures the landscapes of L.A. Not the scrub-covered hillsides and perpetually blue sky but the urban flatland identifiable by signage rather than architecture, the social landscape defined by language and the cultural landscape expressed through television and film. The ever-morphing character of L.A., where entire city blocks are razed and rebuilt in a matter of months, lends itself to his sort of oblique representation. (In fact, Ruscha lent the 1988 photograph Untitled (Landscape), a foggy scene of modern sculptures by the likes of David Smith with a towering unlabeled sign identifiable as the post-war design used for shopping centers, blurring the boundaries between high modernism and its commercial derivative.)
Like Ruscha, Johnson began by using text and typeface and the attention-getting strategies of graphic design but presented the works as photographs rather than drawings or paintings. Johnson has a similar eye for gorgeous color and an ear for language, even in the small stories that he has appropriated.
Unlike Ruscha, who came of age in more optimistic times, Johnson’s sagas are mainly tragic. His two-panel account of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, in yellow on black (the colors of a caution sign), is drawn from a TV Guide description of a movie of the week, a mediated version of the terrible event. Yet, the assassination itself remains a landmark in the city’s consciousness, especially since the Ambassador Hotel where the event took place was razed. But that is exactly the kind of sordid history that fascinates Johnson.
The Ambassador Hotel was on a once posh stretch of Wilshire Boulevard now gone slightly seedy, a neighborhood where Johnson lived for many years without a car. Nearby was the legendary Perino’s restaurant once frequented by movie stars and Hancock Park society, now closed. Johnson has rescued it from oblivion with two horizontal renderings, one showing the stucco façade with a welcoming awning and wrought iron columns, the other revealing the back entrance for staff and the alley that was used for covert, stand-up sex.
The cruising along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood provides the text and context for many works in the ‘90s. One of the strongest is a 1994 diptych Untitled (Standing Still & Walking in Los Angeles), a line lifted from poet Frank O’Hara, who had placed the action in New York. The turquoise words are torqued and twisted almost beyond legibility but compliment the bright orange abstract graphic on the adjacent panel. The apparently insouciant shapes and colors actually describe the appearance of movement that WeHo street hustlers must maintain to avoid arrest.
Hammer adjunct curator Russell Ferguson chose not to hang Johnson’s work chronologically and the wisdom of this decision is beautifully realized in a large gallery where the winter landscapes are congregated. In this predigital period, Johnson had a job producing graphics for television and learned how to put together painted cels, mylar and colored paper to make a composition to be photographed. Hiroshige and Hanna Barbera were his source material for wintery scenes that bear single placard to tell a story. Some are appropriated, others written by Johnson. The last of the series, Untitled (Classically Tragic Story) (1991) chronicles the aftermath of the 1969 Sharon Tate murders by Charles Manson by citing several of those who were supposed to be at the Beverly Hills house that night -- Cary Grant, Jaqueline Suzanne, Jerzy Kosinsky -- and who gained glossy notoriety as Manson survivors. Their little story on an orange placard is supported by a couple of snow-covered branches.
With much of Johnson’s art, (and perhaps with L.A. itself), the cheery, animated presentation camouflages sinister meaning. For example, in Untitled (Ghost Story for Courtney Love) (1992), a lovely nocturnal landscape of mushrooms supports Johnson’s hilarious red and white dancing text quoting the punk singer: "You can’t stop and smell the roses with amphetamine psychosis."
The show contains no works at all from 2000 until 2007, the year that Johnson executed a hilarious series that refers neither to celebrity nor L.A. but to the art of animation. Classic cartoon figures of a donkey, a giraffe and a kangaroo are shown with the pencil and even the hand that has drawn them. They hark back to early animation but Johnson’s ribald touch remains. The pencil eraser is aimed at the ass’s ass, or stuck erect in the front pocket of the kangaroo. These are amusing riffs on the action of animation, the relationship between the creator and his creation, though more sexually explicit than anything imagined by Disney.
More profound, to me, are three exquisite and utterly strange 2007 photographs of changing technology. In Untitled (Meters), bands of light illuminate a grid of electrical meters. A slide projector, Untitled (Projector), is rendered as a black line drawing barely visible under a sooty gray atmosphere though rays of bright white light shoot out from its lens. A photocopier Untitled (Copier) is similarly rendered with the light leaking from under its closed cover. These works are in contrast to the light and space art associated with L.A. or the light of faith pouring through the cathedral windows of art history, or the sunset light often illustrated in Ed Ruscha’s paintings. This is the dying of the light from obsolescent technology. These works are among the most poignant in Johnson’s show. Like the disappearing animators and their cartoons, the lost architecture, even the celebrities themselves. Going, going, gone. And Johnson’s art represents their memories.
"Larry Johnson," June 21-Sept. 6, 2009, at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90024
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP writes about contemporary art in Los Angeles.