Los Angeles

Larry Johnson

It’s hard to see. White sans-serif type on white glossy field, the text of Larry Johnson’s Untitled (The Thinking Man’s Judy Garland) (all works 1999–2000)—“the / thinking / man’s / judy / garland”—almost fades from sight altogether. As white-on-white sheen, a photographic component, the words disappear unless you stand right in front of the thing itself. More than just an effect of the white text being not on but of the white surface (it is a photograph after all), the disappearance points to the obsolescence of Judy; of thinking (especially thinking about Judy); of photography; of garlands; certainly of modernist purity (i.e., whiteness); of the LA and Hollywood studio system that helped invent Judy and that she helped invent—her movies’ “real” subject was always Judy, or, not to put too semiological a point on it, /Judy/, considered as a signifier bracketed off from her signified “content” (Dorothy Gale, Mrs. Norman Maine)—and maybe even of the kind of gay bar where, not just ironically, a fag might invoke Judy as a pick-up or put-down for some other in muscle T and tight jeans. Johnson continues in his most recent work to investigate the Bermuda Triangle of what is understood as reality, representation, and photography, specifically the medium’s history of reterritorializing the fictions of “reality” and “representation,” at one time more easily distinguishable.

Tucked in among the outlines of stacks of stuff (water bottles, magazines, and bags) in the two panels of Untitled (The 2 Economies) are the sentences “I DESERVE A MEDAL, MARCH 6, 1999” and “I DESERVE AN OSCAR, MAY 29, 1999.” Autobiographical and Hollywood events are being cited, but the dates also trope the autobiographical, the confessional, making meaning and revelation skid, to become a commentary on contemporary photography’s overweening reliance on documenting crisis or its moods (“my heartbreak,” “my chic bedroom anomie”), as in, say, the work of Jack Pierson, without any consideration of documentary and autobiography as themselves photographic styles, as participation in modes of representation. Johnson’s pictures collapse drawing and animation cel into photography, so that the works look so vertiginously like what they’re not that it’s hard to see them as photographs. The fact that they look like no other photography is exactly the point: They interrogate the medium.

Judy Garland was who she was and simultaneously performed who she was in all her films; Johnson’s works are examples of photography but also perform or deploy many of the things that have come to make it up. His pictures indict photography’s all-too-frequent unwillingness to test the limits of the medium by questioning what photography as a practice and grammar might be, other than fashion, travel, or product shot. (Gregory Crewdson, with his Chris Carter origins and recent Yo La Tengo album cover, manages to incorporate all three.) But however much Johnson’s is a mourning project, it is also photography’s wake, which would partially explain the festival Baskin-Robbins colors (mint, custard yellow, strawberries-and-cream pink, blueberry blue as well as pearly gray) and the goofy, giddy, dilapidated imagery “floating” in them.

The two center panels of Untitled (Land w/o Bread) depict a cartoon donkey and goat, hijacked from Luis Buñuel’s 1932 documentary and smiling at the brink of their possible annihilation. Funny, bulbous “fingertips” partly blot them out in the two outer panels, a witty homage to the amateur photographer; a love of the fact that anyone and everyone can and does take pictures, while being a canny acknowledgment of how the deskilled look of the “snapshot,” that ubiquitous sign of an autobiographical mode (I witnessed this), rapidly overwhelms any kind of critical analysis. For example, why does one want to see the donkey and goat as stand-ins for the artist and certain viewers when they are just as likely stand-ins for “photography” and “thinking”?

The precariousness of not questioning such readings resonates throughout this crucial body of work. A killer bee—uncriticality?—hovers around the honeypot on the side of the donkey’s saddle, drone for the arriving swarm.

Bruce Hainley