A text settled, but plangent, resides in a serene scene of stark graphic winter trees, fresh snow, and distant mountains. The loud and overbearing text screams the confession of a celebrity on the phone with his agents – everybody wants, everybody flatters, they beg to create anything and everything around him. The celebrity conveys his story in punchy, obnoxious call and response narration, punctuated over and over by the word “Me” – “Life with Me, This is Me, Me She Wrote, Me fashion creation” and ending with “Hour after hour, offer after offer it goes, I have no time to stop and smell the rose named for Me.” In Larry Johnson’s remarkable retrospective at the Hammer Museum, I fixated on this one extraordinarily powerful work, flatly but tellingly called Untitled (Winter Me), 1990. The work is classic Johnson.
The assertion of the Me over and over in the cult of celebrity paradoxically destroys the individual. “What do we know of celebrities really?” Johnson seems to be saying here. “The more I see them, the less I know.” His use of language in the piece empties out the Me masterfully. With his irony and satire, Johnson interrupts the placid surface of the wintry landscape (typically an engine for self-affirmation or greeting card solace) with deadpan celebrity critique, and despites its flat, stillness the piece paradoxically throbs with human sympathy and heat. Johnson has managed to both critique celebrity while simultaneously constructing an elegy to the celebrity’s lost self. I almost believe that Johnson may be mourning our collective inability to believe in, stop for, or smell “the rose named for Me,” if not that Winter Me implies that all of us, in our worlds of empty images and hollow virtues, are in the winter of self.
Johnson’s retrospective is full of such devastating moments and at times, the artist is outright cunning in his ability to offer works that hide under a blanket of detachment before luring you in and demanding your humanity. Though satire, irony, and collage (all further once-removed by photography) are Johnson’s tools, he is ultimately uneasy with the fact that things can never be straightforward. It’s as if he uses the world of irony to critique irony itself. Johnson knows deeply that irony or displacement of any kind comes with a loss, that this shifting sense of self is a thin collage in great danger disappearing entirely. As in Untitled (Jesus + I), 1990, the self can be reduced to simply the things around it, commodities pitched for old fashioned purposes now past – Honey and Almond Scrub and Super Aloe Lemon cleanser to wash a body growing strange and distant, on the verge of vanishing from sight.
(Images: Larry Johnson, Untitled (Ass) 2007 Color photograph. 57 1/2 x 62 1/2 in. (146.1 x 158.8 cm). Larry Johnson,Untitled (Classically Tragic Story), 1991, Color photograph. 61 x 75 3/8 in. (154.9 x 191.5 cm)., and Larry Johnson, Meters2007, Chromogenic print. 49 3/4 x 66 in. (126.4 x 167.6 cm). Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Purchase.)