Judging from his exceptional new Ektachrome prints on view at the Stuart Regen Gallery in West Hollywood, it is the winter of Larry Johnson's discontent. Figuratively and literally.
Here, discontent signifies the opposite of contentment, but it flatly means the opposite of content, or essential meaning, too. Johnson's large-scale pictures, which feel as empty as the vacuum of outer space, are radically drained of typical notions of visual meaning. Each features a snowy landscape, but it's more than just the image that generates their frostbitten coldness.
Johnson's pictures--they're photographic, but it doesn't do to call them photographs--feature text-laden signs incongruously planted in Disney-like renditions of icy, winter fields. Each Ektachrome print began as a small landscape painting. Commercially printed text was then added to a space left for the sign, and the whole thing was photographed. One print, enlarged to as much as 5 by 7 feet, was made, and the small painting destroyed. Each print is thus a "unique original," which deftly collapses painting, printing and photography into one another.
The huge enlargement of the painting and its printed typeface fuzzes their edges, softening the crisp line and the saturated colors. Indigo skies are pierced by barren trees, clumps of freshly fallen snow artfully cap the mountaintops, and neither animal nor human being is glimpsed. In fact, the only trace of human life is the presence of the big signs, one per picture, which carry peculiar tales about beauty, existentialism, transcendence, identity and alienation--classic subjects in modern art.
Johnson's stories aren't lofty or learned. They have the chummy, casual demeanor of gossip or gags; the dissertation on beauty is told through chatty references to hand creams and cosmetics, the one on transcendence is a black joke about dead rabbits. And visually, the disconcerting image of a sign-in-the-wilderness recalls nothing so much as illustrations in a children's book, or perhaps a common animation cel.
With their showy air of highly refined triviality, there's something dandified in both the image and the text. Johnson is a virtuoso of a camp aesthetic, which is here turned toward the banal pretentiousness of the canons of modern art. But his own art never sneers. Instead, its icy coldness is bracing--and unnerving. Johnson's pictures are like wake-up calls. No one appears in the remote and empty picture to read his signs--no one save the solitary viewer in the gallery who stands before them. And any questions of essential meaning are democratically left to him.
* \o7 Stuart Regen Gallery\f7 ,\o7 619 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood; (213) 276-5424. To Jan. 5. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Quirky Conception: In several group exhibitions during the last few years, the sculptures of Patrick Nickell have compelled attention for their unpretentious means and the quirkiness of their conception. Often made from cardboard, the abstract, sometimes large-scale forms played against such traditional sculptural concerns as gravity, weight, permanence and aggressiveness. Products of the hand, rather than the foundry or construction shop, they redirected sculptural conventions toward improvisation in the makeshift studio.
"Built for Speed," as Nickell's first gallery solo show is tellingly titled, does the same, but in ways that suggest a new sophistication and complexity. The eight, modestly sized wall-sculptures at Sue Spaid Fine Art are composed from cut and glued corrugated-cardboard and plastic wrapping. Sometimes, their surfaces are marked with pencil or felt-tip pen. Added up, these are ordinary packing and labeling materials familiar to the shipping clerk.
With a seemingly casual, extemporaneous elegance reminiscent of the eccentric work of Richard Tuttle, Nickell fashions these packing materials into unassuming containers not intended to hold objects, but meant to carry a sculptor's primary substance: space. The cardboard is most often cut into a long, lozenge-like shape (imagine the tongue of a shoe), then folded in various ways. Finally, it's made into one plane of an otherwise transparent volume, through the addition of plastic wrapping.
The small object that results may be appended to others like it, or pierced with other forms, or nested inside them. Because folded cardboard wants to unfold, stretching the plastic taut around the volume, the enclosed space gains a tensile resonance that is quietly vibrant. Some of these space-containers get fairly baroque--if that's not too florid a word for small sculptures made from such humble materials--and when they do, they can scuttle out of control. More often, they mix just the right amount of peculiarity and calm assurance.
* \o7 Sue Spaid Fine Art, 7454 1/2 Beverly Blvd.; (213) 935-6153. To Dec. 30. Closed Monday and Tuesday.