Dienstag, 29. September 2009


Larry Johnson at the UCLA Hammer Museum of Art, Westwood

by Simone Kussatz

Celebrity culture is the main theme running through Larry Johnson’s retrospective exhibit. Johnson’s celebrities are faceless and shown to us in a most outré way. We see them through the eyes of their creators, the machinery of mass media, which not only profits from their early and tragic deaths, but, as the exhibit suggests, may have also caused them. This sinister and ironic view can be felt throughout the sixty-work show, organized by adjunct curator Russell Ferguson and spanning Johnson’s career since 1982.

The overview opens with Johnson’s reworking of a Paul Rand video in which the individual letters of the word “women” move up and down like the horses in a merry-go-round, accompanied by circus music. In the very next room, Johnson’s six-panel breakthrough work Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1982/1984) is installed high up on the wall, showing a light blue sky with puffy clouds and actors’ names — Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo — superimposed on them. From one’s earthbound perspective the names have a god-like quality to them but at the same time remind us of their unhappy lives, cut shockingly short like Michael Jackson’s, who died five days after the exhibit opened.

Cartoon-style animals appear in subsequent works, including a goat and a donkey with a bee stinging its rear. The four panels comprising Untitled (Land w/o Bread) (1999–2000), are ironically named after Luis Buñuel’s sober 1933 documentary Land without Bread. Two of the photographs show Johnson’s finger in front of the camera’s lens, admitting to the artist’s technical and conceptual imperfections. Johnson’s goat images, as noted by Christopher Knight and others, relate to Greek mythology but also carry a gay subtext.

What stands out most in Johnson’s display are his text-based works. Some of them feature bright, multi-colored or constantly changing lettering on colorful backgrounds, rendering texts artful and decorative, similar in approach to Jenny Holzer but deliberately more tasteful. Johnson’s fragmented texts derive from different genres and sources (some he appropriated, others he wrote himself). Since celebrities are made and known through the media, words logically play a key role in Johnson’s approach. As Johnson put it himself, “To master celebrity is to master language.”

Edited by Peter Frank

Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and Associate Editor for Fabrik and The Magazine. He was born in 1950 in New York, where he served as art critic for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News, and moved to Los Angeles in 1988.

Larry Johnson,
Untitled (Winter Me)
Color photograph
45 1⁄2 x 61 in. (115.6 x 154.9 cm)

Edition of 3

Private collection

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