New York

Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson has been photographing texts appropriated from mass media sources, such as People magazine and star bios, for several years now. These works bear comparison to the work of Richard Prince, in that both manifest obvious relations to theoretical issues surrounding photography and appropriation. At this point, however, appropriation is a given rather than a critical issue in Johnson’s photographs. The compromise, or loss, of originality occurs not in his work but in the texts themselves, from the moment they are first published. Johnson takes these cliched and entirely codified voices and restores to them a certain autonomy, as if reaching through the congealed and inert surface of the prose and bringing back something like emotion. He accomplishes this in part through his distinctive formal means: the texts float on backgrounds that recall both color-field abstraction and advertising formats. The colors he uses are either supersaturated primaries or faded, sickly pastels. Letters within single words are presented in different colors, a gesture that at once invites and frustrates the reading process. Johnson’s colors are not connotative; rather, they work as instruments of estrangement, forcing a different kind of attention to the words and endowing them with a sense of otherness that they would have lacked in their original context.

Four of the five pieces in this show (all consisting of C-prints, one a diptych) engage gay themes, but this potentially loaded subject matter is allied critically to the nervy, subversive logic of Johnson’s earlier practice. Untitled (The L-Factor), 1988, takes its text from an announcement for a Liberace auction at Christie’s. Johnson’s setting of this text in red, orange, and light-blue letters on a pale-orange background is nauseatingly cheerful, a candy-colored assault on the observer. The work conjoins National Enquirer–like stardom, extravagance, kitsch, and commerce with the no less obvious subtexts of homosexuality and death from AIDS. The deaths of figures such as Rock Hudson and Liberace represent both an eruption of stereotypically gay contexts with the iconography of stardom and a confirmation of the trajectory of stars’ lives as constructed by the media: one dies either notorious or a has-been. Johnson sets up a grotesque contrast between the real facts of disease and death and their thorough assimilation into a codified language of vacuity—in this instance, the irritatingly alliterative language of vain praise, hypocritical homage, and brazen come-on. The parallel sub-discourse on stardom is one of scandal and perversion, secret depravity and tragic death. The L-Factor reads like a critical palimpsest of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Hollywood Babylon.

—David Raminelli