Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson

The Hammer Museum presents the first full-scale survey exhibition of work by the Los Angeles-based artist Larry Johnson. Johnson's work is quintessentially of and about Los Angeles but at the same time forms a penetrating commentary on American culture more broadly. He combines an immaculate glossy surface with witty and at times cutting references to popular culture, animation, gay subcultures, and moderne architecture. Much of his work explores the themes of Hollywood and celebrity, especially the edges of that world, where aspirations and fantasies bump up against reality. Johnson received his masters of fine arts from CalArts in 1984, and he has always been among the most respected artists of his generation. He makes use of a sometimes bitter humor and draws on stylistic elements taken from sources such as animation, graphic design, commercial illustration, and advertising. A range of Johnson's work from throughout his entire career is presented, from his early text-based works through his well-known winter landscapes, and on to his most recent works featuring cartoon animals.

Curated by Russell Ferguson, Hammer adjunct curator and chair of the Department of Art, UCLA.

Hammer Projects: Larry Johnson. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. June 21-September 6, 2009. Photo by Joshua White.

I Had Never Seen Anything Like It

By Russell Ferguson

For twenty-five years Larry Johnson lived, without a car, in a part of Los Angeles known variously as mid-Wilshire or Koreatown. Traces of the city, and of this neighborhood in particular, can be found throughout his work. Johnson has always also lived in another Los Angeles, one in which street hustlers are picked up on the corner by men who shower them with gifts, figures like John Sex and the porn star Leo Ford have their names in lights, cartoon logos step off the wall to have their photograph taken, and politicians star in made-for-TV movies. But it is often hard to tell the difference between these two worlds. Reality keeps confusing them. It is where these two worlds overlap that Johnson has found the room to take stock of a whole range of issues that run like veins through his work, including death, celebrity, class, camp, lust, nostalgia, and obsolescence.

On his mother's side, Johnson's family was straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. In the 1930s they came out to California from dustbowl Oklahoma and found work in the canneries. His mother grew up in a trailer park and eventually became a beautician. His father was a Teamster truck driver who rose before dawn to deliver bread for a big bakery. In 1950s California these were jobs that for the first time offered access to a middle-class lifestyle. The Johnsons lived in Lakewood, a 1950s development built around a gigantic shopping mall, whose official motto was "Tomorrow's City Today." Larry Johnson was born there in 1959. Joan Didion wrote about Lakewood in the early 1990s, when a national scandal erupted around the sexual assaults committed by the high school "Spur Posse." She places the town's birth in "the seamless confluence of World War Two and the Korean War and the G.I. Bill and the defense contracts that began to flood Southern California as the Cold War set in. Here on this raw acreage on the flood plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers was where two powerfully conceived national interests, that of keeping the economic engine running and that of creating an enlarged middle or consumer class, could be seen to converge."1

 

 Hollywood Babylon   Crocodile Tears LA Weekly  Untitled (Dead + Buried)  

 Talent Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) 

 The Misfits  Rebel Without a Cause  Rebel Without a Cause  The Misfits  

 

 Untitled (Grief Is Devastating) 

  None Dare Call it Treason   Untitled (Peter Lawford)  Untitled (Greek Tycoon)  How Did They Die

 Untitled (Black Box)  

 Untitled (Heh, Heh)  The Best Man  

 Untitled (John-John and Bobby)  

Untitled (John-John and Bobby)  

 Untitled (I Had Never Seen Anything Like It)  The Joy of Hustling  The older brother, Paul, meanwhile, explained his occupation: "A hustler is someone who can talk–not just to men, to women too. Who can cook. Can keep company. Wash a car. Lots of things make up a hustler. There are a lot of lonely people in this town, man."9 Again, fantasy and harsh reality are uncomfortably blended. How much do the clients, the stars, buy into this vision of the world, of their world? 

In 1994 Johnson would return to hustler territory in Untitled (Standing Still & Walking in Los Angeles). The work is an homage to Frank O'Hara, modeling its title on a phrase from his "Ode to Causality" (1957-58): "standing still and walking in New York."10 O'Hara's poetic use of countless details from the everyday life of his period, personal references, and in-jokes is an approach that resonates very widely in Johnson's work. Untitled (Some Details with Dandruff Circled) (1995) is a good example of a work replete with such references. The transposition he makes here, however, is not just from New York to Los Angeles but specifically to the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard, where, to avoid trouble from the police, hustlers have to appear to be walking somewhere while actually remaining close to a particular spot, essentially standing still and walking at the same time.

But as O'Hara said of John Rechy's novel City of Night (1963), "The hero is a hustler, but the author is not."11 Fiction is fiction, no matter how rooted in autobiography, and it would be a mistake to blend the many first-person voices in Johnson's work with his own voice. My Dad Is My Hero, several works announce, but the voice that says it turns out to be Nancy Sinatra's. We can, however, hear Johnson speak for himself in the transcript of his court testimony reproduced in Untitled (Q &A) (1988), tracing his path from the Motherlode bar across Santa Monica Boulevard to a liquor store. His crime: jaywalking. Johnson discourages overt identification with himself. "I would deny any autobiographical content" is how he puts it. But perhaps that "would" leaves just a little ambiguity. In the words that Charles Dickens gave to David Copperfield, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."12 

But what pages? The text in Untitled (The Friends You Keep and the Books You Read) (1988) concludes, "I decided to take a look at this business." In the context of the other works in the series, we might assume that the business is hustling. And it is, in a way, but the actual source is a testimonial to the Amway Corporation from one of its salespeople. The real testimonial, of course, is to the supposed power of language to effect a social upgrade, both "to get some of those luxuries that the budget never leaves room for" and to gain intellectual credibility. The piece is in part a jab at the many pseudo-intellectual artists who in the late 1980s flaunted their reading lists as a kind of credential. Johnson remembers being asked patronizingly if he knew who Jean Baudrillard was. He did, but, unlike his interlocutors, he felt no need to parade the fact. Implying that those who do are on the level of deluded Amway salesmen bent on self-improvement, he forces "high" theory onto the same page with the most debased of commercial texts. In Untitled (Five Buck Word) (1989) the five-buck word in question is "emollients," the perfect choice for those who want language to smooth their way to advancement. "In 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Novarro, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and announced plans to 'continue my writing.' Writing had helped him, he said, to 'reflect on experience and see what it means.'"13

 Untitled (Don't Drink and Drive, Wintergreen + Orange)  Untitled (Some Details with Dandruff Circled)'s statement that he "can't count the number of delectable hours I've spent in bars, the perfect places for the meditation and contemplation indispensable to life."14 And Buñuel concurs with Johnson, ending pages of ecstatic praise for bars, smoking, and drinking with a cynical bromide: "Finally, dear readers, allow me to end these ramblings on tobacco and alcohol, delicious fathers of abiding friendships and fertile reveries, with some advice: Don't drink and don't smoke. It's bad for your health."15

Heroin is bad for your health too, and in Johnson's work it makes its appearance in a barrage of alliteration in Untitled (H) (1990), where we meet a "homo hipster" whose "hard-core habit and hard-fought holler for help hailed from the hallowed halls of higher learning." His complaint, quoted verbatim from a real episode of the TV show "Hard Copy," was that of an acquaintance of Johnson's, whose excuse for his addiction was the pressure of life in the Ivy League (or "the LV, League," as Johnson calls it). Apart from the "Hard Copy" quote, Johnson wrote the text himself, as would be his practice from this point on. He had begun writing these short, fragmentary narratives, and, he felt, he "needed an environment for these texts to exist in." The texts themselves felt rather cartoonish to Johnson. And so, for the first time since the cotton-wool clouds of Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds), a series would feature imagery alongside the text. The texts needed a frozen environment, it turned out, a combination of Hollywood animation background and the idealized winter landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige. To make it, Johnson used as his primary source a winter scene lifted from a Viewmaster disc of Hanna-Barbera's "Scooby-Doo." In this predigital period Johnson had a day job producing network graphics for television, so he was familiar with how to put together painted eels, mylar, and colored paper to make a convincing whole to be photographed. Into these landscapes fall the texts, like abandoned placards. Or like paintings. Just as earlier works like Untitled (Grief Is Devastating) had used a multiple-panel format to make the wall function as a background, the texts in the winter landscapes assert a pictorial presence against the picturesque context in which the artist has placed them.

 Untitled (W, X, Y, +Z) Untitled (Jesus + I)  Untitled (Shopping Bags)  Untitled (Winter Me)  Little Me  Untitled (Jesus + I) Untitled (A Quiet Life)  The Other  The Friends You Keep and the Books You Read  

 Untitled (Classically Tragic Story)  Untitled (Classically Tragic Story) 

Even more disorienting is the series of negative winter landscapes that Johnson made in 1991. Like Richard Hamilton, who in the late 1960s made a painting and a series of prints titled I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, based on a color negative of the Bing Crosby film of the same name, Johnson had (independently) observed that the color reversal can actually intensify the effects of the original. It was a phenomenon that Johnson had first noticed when he saw a color negative of a Japanese print, and discovered "Hokusai looks more Hokusai in negative." In Johnson's negative winter landscapes the glossy black that now occupies the snowy areas is as beautiful as the original white but infinitely more sinister.

 Untitled (Ghost Story for Courtney Love),  Dick Tracy Untitled (A Popsicle Stick with Some Writing on It / Prediction  Untitled (Ghost Story #1)  

  Untitled (Albatross' Nest)  

 

 Untitled (A Mensa Halloween)  L.A. Mentary  Little Me 

 Untitled (The Perfect Mensa Man)  Paul Rand's Women 1948 Untitled (Something Quite Atrocious) 

 Untitled (Nathan Lane)  Untitled (Morgan Camera and King 0' Lawn)  

 Untitled (Storyboard)  Los Angeles Times  

  Untitled (Why Say High School?)  Untitled (Noblesse, Oh Please) 

 Untitled (Perino's Front, Perino's Rear)  

Neither I nor the people who drank with me have at any moment felt embarrassed by our excesses. "At the banquet of life"-good guests there, at least-we took a seat without thinking even for an instant that what we were drinking with such prodigality would not subsequently be replenished for those who would come after us. In drinking memory, no one had ever imagined that he would see drink pass away before the drinker.

 Untitled (Land w/o Bread)  

Untitled (Unfinished Fome-Cor Factory)  Course of Empire  Blue Collar  

 Untitled (Nathan Lane) 

  

 Untitled (Giraffe)  Untitled (Ass)

Then the metaphysical dimension of the aesthetic-which may also be its aesthetically distinguishing dimension-is an erosion of aesthetic form. Origination is designated by figures of its perhaps not taking place; the coming-to-be of relationality, which is our birth into being, can only be retroactively enacted, and it is enacted largely as a rubbing out of formal relations. Perhaps traditional associations of art with form-giving or form-revealing activities are at least partly a denial of such formal disappearance in art.

 Untitled (Kangaroo)  Kangaroo 

 Untitled (Meters) Untitled (Copier) Untitled (Projector) 

 Untitled (Achievement: SW Corner, Glendale + Silverlake Blvds.) Untitled (The Two Economies)  

Notes

1. Joan Didion, Where I Was From (New York: Knopf, 2003), 104. 

2. Larry Johnson, "'American-ish Painting': Notes on Some Recent Works of Richard Hawkins" in Richard Hawkins (Cologne: Daniel Buchholz, 2003), 7.

3. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes from Johnson come from conversations on Jan. 21 and Feb. 7, 2009. 

4. David Rimanelli, "Larry Johnson: Highlights of Concentrated Camp," Flash Art 23, no.155 (Nov.-Dec. 1990). 

5. John A. Stormer. None Dare Call it Treason (Florissant, Mo.: Liberty Bell Press, 1964). 

6. Norman and Betty Donaldson, How Did They Die (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980).

7. Gore Vidal, "Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures" (1983), in At Home (New York: Vintage, 1988), 78. 

8. Gregg Tyler, The Joy of Hustling (New York: Manor Books, 1976). Tyler claimed to have donated his napkin collection to the Jackie Kennedy White House. 

9. Joan Didion, "The White Album," in The White Album (New York: Washington Square Press, 1979), 16,17. 

10. Frank O'Hara, "Ode to Causality," in Donald Allen, ed., The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 303. 

11. Frank O'Hara, "The Sorrows of the Youngman: John Rechy's City of Night" (1963), in Standing Still and Walking in New York (Bolinas, Calif.: Grey Fox, 1975), 164. 

12. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850; New York: Penguin. 1996), 11. 

13. Didion, "The White Album," 47. 

14. Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, trans. Abigail Israel (New York: Vintage, 1984), 41. 

15. Ibid., 48. 

16. Gerold Frank, Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story (Cleveland: World, 1960); Patrick Dennis, Little Me (1961; New York Broadway, 2002). 

17. Thomas Tryon, The Other (1971; Lakewood, Colorado: Centipede, 2008). 

18. Joan Didion, "The White Album," 46. 

19. Larry Johnson, "Tim and Sue's Excellent Adventure," in Tim Noble and Sue Webster (Los Angeles: Gagosian, 2001), 15. 

20. Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1989), 139. 

21. Dave Hickey, "Larry Johnson's malicious muzak," Frieze (Jan.-Feb. 1994): 31.

22. Gary Indiana, "Gags," in Larry Johnson (Vancouver: Belkin Art Gallery, 1996), 51-52. 

23. Guy Debord, Panegyric, vol. 1 (1989), trans. James Brook (London, Verso. 2004), 34. 

24. John Rechy, City of Night (New York: Grove, 1963), 9. 

25. Joe Sola, e-mail to the author, Jan. 10, 2009. 

26. Leo Bersani, "Sociality and Sexuality," Critical Inquiry 26, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 641-656.

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The catalogue is published with the assistance of The Getty Foundation.