Los Angeles

Larry Johnson

Margo Leavin Gallery

Critics have described Larry Johnson’s work as ironic, witty, and cool, seeing it as “a deliberate provocation, a mocking . . . perpetuation of (coy, cruel, twisted) defense mechanisms” or “user-friendly, if slightly bitchy art—bereft of interiority . . . and custom tailored to intensify those pleasures of the text that Roland Barthes extols.” These quotes are from writers I like and admire, and they get at the heart of some of Johnson’s earlier efforts. But what I saw in the artist’s new works, all from 1998, was only an attitude of cool, a facade of bitchy wit, and an appearance of impersonal, impartial refusal of meaning. What looks in some of these works like the most ostentatious superficiality turns out to contain surprising depths.

Notions of taste and cultural memory were at the heart of a small series of prints on view, much as in Johnson’s previous work. Each print of Untitled (Literal Bolan) shows the title of a song by Marc Bolan, the early-’70s rock idol who fronted the band T. Rex, on a sumptuously colored background. In another work, Untitled (One Down, Three Across), the artist characteristically emphasizes the connections between familiar, popular forms and the aesthetic presence of fine art. The large drawing of an abstract sculptural shape à la David Smith (one of a number of images here that riff on the sculptor’s signature pieces), the surface of which is patterned like a crossword puzzle, also suggests a swiveling railroad-crossing sign. This ambiguous composition foregrounds issues of context, asking the viewer to consider the ways in which meaning and value are ascribed.

The work that most grabbed my attention, though, comprised two large Ektacolor photos of drawings by the artist hung on opposite walls: Untitled (Perino’s Front, Perino’s Rear). The photographed drawings, pastel blue on a buff background, of the long-defunct Los Angeles restaurant suggest early-’60s magazine illustration or an architect’s sketches. Johnson lavishes meticulous detail on areas like the canopy, the curve of the roof, and the ornamental pillars of the portal leading to the lobby. The style of the building is immediately familiar as quintessentially LA: a fantasyland hybrid—part budget moderne, part Franco-Italianate pastiche, with fragments of Spanish-colonial heritage—that worked as well for this popular Italian spot in Hollywood (which enjoyed its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s) as for Tahitian Village in Bellflower and countless Bel Aire insta-châteaus.

In a 1990 interview, Johnson remarked of his appropriated-text works: “When [the texts I appropriated] originally existed I think there was that covertness, a codifying. I would love to eliminate that if I could. I certainly don’t want to imbue anything with more meaning. Heaven forbid.” Yet these new photographs defy the viewer not to imbue them with associative meanings. Sketches precede nearly all buildings; every finished structure becomes, in a way, a monument to its idea, a permanent record. Johnson reverses the process, conferring posthumous permanence on an extinct institution (the building still stands, a popular movie location). Exhibited in Los Angeles, of course, the work acquires considerable poignancy. It prompts reflections on the changing fabric of the city, where postmodern vernacular and banal modernist buildings stood side by side; where fact and fiction merged in a continuum of glamour and grim reality; where fantasy was the urban lifeblood, all of these characteristics slowly fading into memory.

Ultimately, too, the Perino photographs evoke art—historical memories; in revealing and memorializing the seemingly permanent as transitory, Johnson’s operation has resonances with Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Does the artist imbue this image with more meaning? You bet he does.

Rosetta Brooks