On Location with Larry Johnson - Art Collector

Larry Johnson, Untitled (Moved to Tears), 2010. Colour photograph.Collection of David Kordansky and Mindy Shapero, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Raven Row, London

By Emma Capps

After an apparently reductive piece of short-form criticism regarding the work of Larry Johnson was published in The New York Times in early 1990, the writer Dave Hickey wrote a response in Frieze, dismissing the review as “standard Puritan twaddle” and making a compelling case for the artist’s (so felt Hickey) honourable and incorruptible transgressiveness.

Many years later, the angry heft of Hickey’s argument was echoed by the Los Angeles-based writer Bruce Hainley – another defender of Johnson’s work – in a rigorous piece in the
Artforum of May 2009. Over the course of a long and devout review, Hainley went to great lengths to contextualise Johnson’s practice for the reader, guiding them away from any misrepresentations of the past. He wrote” “too often tagged as making campy, homosexualist photos [...] that dote on piquant appropriation and textuality, Johnson since the mid-80s has paid faggoty attention to the status quo of a medium and its mediation of the world.”

The interest surrounding the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of Johnson’s dense, subversive, and often difficult photographs plays a significant role in On Location, the current show at Raven Row in Spitalfields, which marks the artist’s first institutional exhibition in Europe and is unblinkingly devoted to the city of Los Angeles and its intrigues. Curated by Hainley, along with Antony Hudek (curator and deputy director of Raven Row), the show presents a selection of works by Johnson spanning from the early 1990s to the present.

In a consistent palette of confectioners’ pastels and cartoonish tones, Johnson’s large-scale, glossily printed photographs cover the three floors of the gallery and describe the cultural topography of Los Angeles in a visual language which is part queer, part academic, part political, part Hollywood. Tabloid blurbs are met with animation cel-like images and other text based works, which, in their elliptical rhetoric and sly, savvy abbreviations, may require a particularly niche form of erudition to untangle.

In order to elaborate on Johnson’s shorthand (and, following Hickey, Hainley and others to insist on an adequate level of engagement with the artist’s work), Raven Row have organised multiple events, talks and screenings to accompany the exhibition, as well as a substantial monograph (
Commie Pinko Guy), edited by Hainley with new essays by several writers as well as reprints of classic underground queer writing. These thoughtfully considered additions to the show provide the cushioning necessary for what will hopefully become a more widespread appreciation for Johnson’s work, which, in its polished opacity, thrives on the kind of argument, theory and conversation that has always surrounded it.

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Larry Johnson’s most recent solo exhibition was at UCLA’s Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), and his work is held in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Centre, amongst other institutions. He has been exhibiting throughout the United States and Europe since the mid-1980s.

On Location will be on show at Raven Row until the 9 August 2015.

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