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Celebrity culture -- a cynic's view

There are cartoons, bright colors, pastels. But Larry Johnson's

July 13, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

Larry Johnson was still a graduate student at California Institute of the Arts when he made "Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds)," 1982/84, a group of six celestial color photographs with the names of celluloid actors floating in cumulus splendor. They're installed in a row at the entrance to his survey exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum -- high up on the wall, so that you literally look up to the stars in the pale blue sky -- and they function as a remarkable touchstone for the 60 works that follow.

Celebrity culture is Johnson's artistic leitmotif, although not necessarily in the way we conventionally think of it. His work is not especially interested in showbiz media antics, paparazzi pileups or the psychological crush of fandom.

Instead, his graphically sleek photographs regard the degree to which contemporary identity and experience are simultaneously reflected in and fabricated by the media's hall of mirrors, as surely as it was once honed by church and state. And despite all the campy jokes, double entendres, cartoon characters, pastel hues, bright primary colors and crisp graphic designs in the work he has made over the last 25 years, the exhibition is relentlessly bleak.

Cynicism is Johnson's main artistic "ism," although in this instance that's not necessarily a bad thing. He has remade American artists' post-World War II claims that the greatest art embodies a profound knowledge of the tragic and the timeless. Unlike those counterculture bohemians, however, he simply locates those truths within the mundane fabric of everyday life.

Johnson's "Movie Stars on Clouds" are patently fake. Cotton tufts on pale blue construction paper were photographed, with actors' names printed across them -- Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. The printed words cast shadows against the fake backgrounds, transforming language into something physical. The word is made flesh.

The first three actors starred in 1961's "The Misfits," an old-style Hollywood epic about the end of the mythic West, while the last three starred in 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause," the embodiment of the new Hollywood and its orientation toward the crack-up of troubled youth. Representing a fitful and tumultuous period of cultural transition, during which Johnson was born (in 1959 in Long Beach), all six celebrities met sad and, in some cases, violent deaths.

The four men were also the ambiguous subjects of homosexual scandal-rumors, including Gable's purported work as a hustler in his struggling-actor youth and Mineo's murder, which gossips speculated came at a hustler's hands. Johnson's otherwise sunny "Movie Stars on Clouds" enshrines forbidden sex, brutal violence and inevitable death, all as the AIDS epidemic was casting its lengthening shadow in the early 1980s.

The period also coincided with art's international explosion, when for the first time young artists were being manufactured as instant celebrities. Johnson's prescient piece overlaid a raw, scary transition in Hollywood's popular culture with one then unfolding in art culture.

The Hammer exhibition, organized by adjunct curator Russell Ferguson, is presented in a very loose chronology. People's faces are virtually absent while texts are abundant, fabricated like commercial mock-ups or digitally manufactured.

Hand-drawn cartoon animals turn up -- a goat, symbol of Dionysian reverie famously given a distinctly gay subtext in Robert Rauschenberg's Combine painting "Monogram"; a mule, infertile beast of burden used for its more vulgar connotation as an ass; a giraffe, solitary long-necked freak of the animal kingdom. Sometimes Johnson's finger gets in front of the camera's lens, suggesting both artistic omnipotence and artistic failure.

Elsewhere his arm and hand enter the photographed drawing, holding an eraser. The artist as potential destroyer merges with the conventional, even sentimental idea of the artist as earthly equivalent of the divine creator. Johnson's arm and hand assume poses straight out of Michelangelo. These works seem determined to obliterate stuffy and entrenched formulas, which celebrity wants to enshrine and perpetuate.

And today, as we drown in a sea of reality television where stars-on-clouds are just the regular people living next door, celebrity has entered a weird dimension. It's simultaneously distinctive and ordinary, unique and typical, exalted and routine.

Pictorially, Johnson's most direct influence is likely the Pop word-paintings of Edward Ruscha. The influence of William Leavitt, Douglas Huebler, Richard Prince and even Sister Corita, the rebellious 1960s "art nun," is also felt. Homosexual artists like Michelangelo, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol are repeatedly referenced in his designs.

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