New York

Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson avoids the posteverything trap of solipsistic obscurity by tuning into the voices of the American vernacular. Common language, like common sense, can be rather strange, and Johnson capitalizes on this fact, taking the fragments of contemporary American consciousness we can all hear as his subject matter.

Johnson designs and edits these voices into a radically condensed form as paintings; in the space of a few lines, a slice of mutating consciousness is powerfully fixed. The new texts are more intensely psychodramatic than the ones in his previous show, and their authenticity ups their political and esthetic potency. The colors and typography of the paintings have always possessed the groovy slick of seventies graphics, and visually these objects are more seductive than ever.

In Untitled (I Swear I won’t Tell A Soul; Who Would I Tell?), 1990—an insane allegory about sexual identity, narcissism, vision, and the power of the father, set in the rural South—the language is simultaneously voluptuous and elegant. The first panel, entitled “I Swear I Won’t Tell A Soul,” recounts the story of a boy called Ted who lives with his seven sisters and his father on a farm. “Both pampered and ignored by all,” Ted was, nevertheless, all too aware of his (sexual?) difference and spent much of his time alone. Struck by “the deadly Massasauga,” he loses his eye at the age of 14 and falls into a melancholia from which nothing will shake him. A fake eye procured from a doctor, “learned from the North,” falls out and is crushed under the blade of his plow. Depressed and embittered, he again grows withdrawn. The second panel is entitled, “Who Would I Tell?” and it presents the end of the story, in which the sisters finally go to their father (you have to wonder why they didn’t have this idea sooner) and ask him to fashion a new eye for their brother. Sending for exotic woods from all over the world, the father retreats into his workshop and does not emerge until he has produced the magic object which will heal his son of his terrible lack. It’s a creepy story; the castration of the son is finally symbolically healed by the power and the prowess of the father and the melancholic boy not only gets an eye, he actually regains his sight. The last line of the text is, “Oh, he could see!”

In Untitled (Five Buck Word), 1989, a short text is narrated by a gigolo/gigolette; it’s not clear who is getting drunk with a certain Herr K, a “pinstriper.” “The waiter brought two more margarooties and I must say I was intrigued by Herr K’s fantasy. But seein’ as my cash balance was sunk, I was eager to propel my financial standin’ upwards. And this pinstriper had yet to provide me with any (here’s a word I snatched from a crossword puzzle book and I think it’s worth five bucks) emollients.” Now this is a slice of the real, the real of the intersection of language and money (five buck word) and sex and money (emollients). Money, sex, and language lubricate our encounter with the Other; here, hilariously, Herr K has to pay for what he wants from the subject. The subject, the I of this text, is, it seems, also willing to put out for a cash reward. The subject knows that a price must be paid for one’s participation in the fantasy of the Other. It takes two to tango and nothing feels as good as gold. It’s all about what the Other has that I don’t, and what I have to do to get it.

In Johnson’s world, we either meet around our lacks or else we retreat into our own emptiness. Untitled (Sampler), 1989, is a painting of a text that rationalizes alienation and our impotence beautifully. There is a big “I” that runs the height of the text, and this I is not interested in progressive theories by which “I” would be liberated from oppressive “social codes.” This “I” sees itself as a “by-product of the conditions that I find myself in.”

Johnson’s work is more and more about the missed encounter and different forms of contemporary degradation and abjection. Representing texts graphically as paintings is a powerful strategy: it renders both the visual and the textual uncanny, Johnson lets the picture plane become possessed by voices from the void.

Catherine Liu