Virtually all of Larry Johnson’s works are photographs. And while that might be well known in the U.S., where he’s relatively established, it probably came as something of a revelation for audiences in London, where his work is seen more often in reproduction than in the flesh. He doesn’t, after all, have gallery representation here, and in fact this survey—which focused on works from the mid-’90s onward, and was organized by writer Bruce Hainley and Raven Row deputy director Antony Hudek—was the Los Angeles native’s first institutional exhibition in Europe.
At first glance, most of the pieces resembled drawings—which, indeed, is how they began. Employing many different styles, Johnson draws images ranging from precise, pastel-hued depictions of L.A. buildings and landmarks to cartoony, satirical portrayals of Disney-esque animals to quick, sketchlike pieces evoking briefly glimpsed scenes. Then he makes monumental photographic prints of these works, most often by digitally scanning them, though the older ones were shot with a camera, as evidenced by the occasional, deliberately obscuring finger. That all the disparate images are ultimately recast through the medium of large-scale photography seems somehow alienating, vaguely oppressive. Arrayed across multiple galleries at Raven Row, the works suggested a kind of vacancy, a sense of distance and slick impenetrability—aided by the fact that the first thing you saw in any work was your own reflection, in the pristine glass in the frame.
All of which made for a seemingly perfect metaphor for Los Angeles itself. A city of polished veneers and ceaseless exposure, of radical transformation and self-absorption, L.A. is the great, unifying theme of much of Johnson’s work. In particular, he explores how Hollywood celebrity and gay identity play out within a cultural milieu obsessed with surface appearance and codes of display.
Occasionally, the codes Johnson invokes seem slightly hackneyed. In Untitled (Cinema Moralia), 2010, the headline “MARILYN DEAD” appears in large letters above a tiny image of a 1989 Los Angeles Times issue with coverage of Rain Man’s and Jodie Foster’s Oscar wins on its front page. It is as if Johnson were contrasting the iconic grandiosity of one cinematic age with the petty realisms of another—and echoing Norma Desmond’s famous pronouncement in Sunset Boulevard that “it’s the pictures that got small.” That movie stardom is still a powerful lure, however, is the wistful message of Untitled (Achievement: SW Corner, Glendale + Silverlake Blvds), 2009, in which a quickly sketched Golden Globe statuette is glimpsed through a window.
As for works about sexuality, there were plenty of them. Most overt was a series of cutesy drawn animals having their orifices stimulated by Johnson’s own pencil, captured, along with his hand, in the photographed shots. There were also subtler, more oblique pieces, mixing L.A. architecture with allusions to queer culture: for instance, portrayals of imagined signage featuring the names of out actors or porn stars; and, more autobiographically, the diptych Untitled (Perino’s Front, Perino’s Rear), 1998, depicting a famous bar behind which Johnson once had a sexual encounter, according to an essay in the catalogue.
To be sure, without such accompanying explanations, many of the references to the minutiae of L.A.’s gay life or movie history might have completely passed British viewers by. Yet if opacity is a potential weakness of Johnson’s approach, it also led to some of his most adroit and cogent works: dark, shadowy views of projectors or photocopiers, their beams of light cutting crisply through the blackness, the images they convey remaining unseen. Portraying moments of photographic transmission, they seemed to describe Johnson’s oeuvre as a whole—the significance or content potentially remaining hidden or occluded, outshone by the sheer, seductive brilliance of the medium itself.