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Larry Johnson

June 21, 2009 - September 6, 2009

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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)

Although Johnson's father, like many in these new, virtually all-white suburbs, was politically right wing, to the point that he voted for the segregationist George Wallace in the election of 1968, the family also identified with the Kennedys, who were emblematic of a prosperous America in which the working class could aspire to upward mobility. The family had a lawn for their kids to play on, and Johnson's father cut it every week with his King 0' Lawn mower. As the Spur Posse case would later demonstrate, high-school athletes were idolized and privileged. Indeed, in Didion's words, towns like Lakewood "were organized around the sedative idealization of team sports." More

 

Curated by Russell Ferguson, Chair of the Department of Art, UCLA.

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

 

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