Combining found texts and images in the seductive form of visual communication, Larry Johnson’s photographic works belong to the output of the “Pictures Generation,” alongside those of other artists who appeared on the American scene at the end of the 1970s (and who were grouped together in the eponymous exhibition at the New York Metropolitan in 2009). Johnson (b. 1959, Los Angeles) is the paradoxical heir to an education received at CalArts from his mentor, the Conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, and to the “camp” cultural practice of Kenneth Anger’s films and bestsellers Hollywood Babylon. His studies completed, he immediately made a name for himself with his first work, Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds), 1982-84, which projects the names of six movie stars who died in tragic circumstances onto fluffy cotton-like clouds.
Like Richard Prince, who was one of his first collectors, Johnson is fascinated by language, the rhetoric of celebrity, and procedures of appropriation. By superimposing texts culled from popular press and forms that reference the language of classical modernism (we catch a glimpse of painter Joseph Albers here and of graphic designer Paul Rand there), he confronts the viewer with a twofold decryption process: that of the text becoming image and that of our own fascination with popular icons (the Kennedy brothers, 1950s American brands and the city of Los Angeles itself). These discursive elements turn out to be crisscrossed by other narratives, as in Untitled (John-John and Bobby), 1988, in which gay sexuality features explicitly, or Untitled (Heh, Heh), 1987, a copy of an ad run by the New York Times showing language at a point of collapse. If the formal influence of Edward Ruscha’s word paintings may be apparent, Johnson’s works seduction is in fact so marked by modernism’s “end game” atmosphere that, structurally, they have more in common with William Leavitt’s deconstructions and Sherrie Levine’s appropriations.
In the 1990s, Johnson began writing his own texts, drawing inspiration from popular writers whose narrative systems he radically condensed. The landscapes he went on to create, inspired by idealized representations of Hokusai and Hiroshige but “stolen” from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, serve as supports for stories written on placards at the center of the image. It was not until the end of the 1990s that Johnson stopped using traditional means of visual communication (animation, collage, photo-typography, etc.) to make his works, in favor of digital technology whose limits he tested by occasionally including some blurriness or his own hands in the process.
Johnson stopped working for several years prior to 2007, when he presented a series of works that thematize the question of image production by representing machines (photocopiers, projectors) and cartoon characters whom he subjects to various torments as they emerge as drawings on paper—these mise en abyme processes, an example of which can be seen in Untitled (Raven Row Giraffe), 2015, clearly also bearing sexual connotations.
- Exhibition curated by Lionel Bovier