Johnson’s Prints: Nostalgic for Nostalgia


The razor sharpness that has given Larry Johnson’s slick, Ektacolor prints their edge for almost 10 years goes dull in his new exhibition at Margo Leavin Gallery. Missing from these large, sumptuously colored pictures is the tension between urgency and restraint that fueled his earlier work.

In place of that nervous edginess, in which desperation and the willingness to maintain a stiff upper lip were held in precarious balance, a looser, more melancholic meditation on time’s inevitable passage takes sketchy shape.

One handsome print, which simply presents the dates “1950-1959,” encapsulates the show’s bittersweet feel of being born too late. Squeezed into a frame more than twice as tall as it is wide, these huge, compressed numerals read like the dates on a gravestone of a 9-year-old.


Only upon reading the title, “The Difference Between Forty-five and Thirty-six,” and knowing something of Johnson’s biography (he was born in 1959), does it become clear that this piece invites viewers to ponder an accident of fate, to speculate about how Johnson’s art might be different if he belonged to an earlier generation.

The rest of the show’s 11 images elaborate upon time’s transformative power. Two prints suggest that since history repeats itself, a decade doesn’t make much difference: “Highlights of 1995” shows newspaper headlines that could have come from the 1950s or the 1990s; and “Peter Lawford” proposes that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career mirrors that of Lawford, an actor from the 1950s and 1960s with similar ties to the same prominent political family.

Referring to Madonna’s fleeting fame, John Belushi’s early death and the 1970s fads of “beefalo” and “jojoba chutney,” three of Johnson’s best-looking prints recapitulate Warhol’s assertion that invisibility, in an image-saturated world, is tantamount to death.

As a whole, Johnson’s exhibition is nostalgic for nostalgia. Too generalized and imprecise to have the swift, supple kick that has been a trademark of his art, these new works begin to register the aging--if not the maturation--of a sly style. Where this time-consuming process takes Johnson’s touchy, once volatile work remains to be seen.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 273-0603. Through Jan. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.