For The LA Times' Christopher Knight:Larry Johnson's Untitled (Ass) 2007 (~5' sq.)
"...despite all the campy jokes, double entendres, cartoon characters, pastel hues, bright primary colors and crisp graphic designs on abundant display in the work he has made over the last 25 years, the exhibition is relentlessly bleak."For a non-Christian, catching sight of their first medieval altarpiece in a dimly lit church, might find the image of a nailed and bloody Christ "bleak," even amongst the gold-leafed splendor of the nave. For proponents of the church, the crucifixion represents but one pivotal moment of a long story that ends in eternal triumph. For the post colonial scholar, the graphic rendering of a Roman execution signifies the gross manipulation on an illiterate population, and along with gunpowder and smallpox, a tool to bring about the extinction of indigenous cultures around the world.
I only bring this up to point out that the persuasiveness of images does not rely on visual literacy or being a member of a targeted audience, nor is it diffused by secular understanding or disbelief. From the pyramids of Meso-America to Madison Avenue, visual imagery has power. You don't have to want or own an iPod for the products advertising and ubiquity to have an effect on your life. Madison Avenue understands that they no longer needs to directly and overtly present a call to buy a product from the company that paid for the advertising. Some examples here here here here here and here.Larry Johnson's Untitled (Heh, Heh) 1987 (~18")
These multiple layers of penetrability (or understanding) are evident in work like Grief is Devastating. The text can be read as an amalgam of biographical episodes, or a glossy synopsis of a pivotal slice of American tragedy. For the scholar, knowledge that the text came from TV Guide, allows themselves a pat on the back as both an outsider to the influence of popular media and an insider as a member of the art world cognoscenti. In a very real way, Larry Johnson pulls a Madison Avenue on the viewer, allowing them to feel as cool and hip as the person whose reading this review on an Apple Company product. Bobby Kennedy, like Jesus on the cross, is merely an object of a larger conversation. The real subject of the art is your relationship to the presentation of the story.Larry Johnson's Untitled (Grief is Devastating) 1985 (~smallish)
Armed with bits of critical theory, the best art that comes from CalArts' MFA program is work that responds to art writing with work that visually articulates a counter-argument, crating a crisis for the curators and critics. In MOCA's big post-Pictures exhibition, the title, A Forrest of Signs, Ann Goldstein pointed to the "...current crisis of finding meaning in the multiplicity of signs that exist in today's culture." In one of the catalog's essays, Howard Singerman points to Sontag's essay, Against Interpretation.Larry Johnson's Untitled (Perino's Front, Perino's Rear) 1998 (~huge)
"Susan Sontag rode to the defense of the work of art against what she held was the numbing and displacing power of criticism. Interpretation, she wrote, is 'the revenge of the intellect upon art,' and more, 'a wish to replace it by something else.' Sontag mounted her defense on two fronts; she insisted that criticism 'serve the work of art' (and, in her final demand for 'an erotics of art,' even love it)..."For many of Johnson's fellow CalArtians in A Forrest of Signs, the best defense was a good offense, where the artist's practice leveled a critique of the various schools of art criticism and theory. In Johnson's case, this was accomplished not some much with erotics, but with an overt (or sometimes sly) use of camp.
Johnson's diptych of Perino's looks like the image could have been purloined from a matchbook cover, considering the restaurant's Hollywood golden-era heyday. Likewise the alley behind the eatery played host to the heyday of gay sexual and social intercourse, before it was irrevocably damaged by AIDS and the Internet. Once again, Johnson gives surface satisfaction. For those who desire a deeper penetration of the work, there are other pleasures hidden in Perino's smelly back side.
Johnson is keen to present us with a view of celebrity that inverts the classic Christian model, creating altarpieces for the TMZ generation. Turning the medieval story on its head, Johnson gives us one pivotal moment of triumph in a story that ends in tragedy. After viewing Natalie Wood's name in clouds, one need only cross the street to Westwood Cemetery to find the same text on a tombstone.Detail of Larry Johnson's Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) 1982/84 (~smallish)
The Larry Johnson solo exhibition is on view at the Hammer through September 6, 2009.