Larry Johnson

At UCLA's Hammer Museum, the photographs and prints by Larry Johnson capture the darker, seamier side of the city's celebrity culture.

UCLA Hammer Museum

Los Angeles

Through Sept. 6

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This exhibition of photographs and prints by Larry Johnson opened during a week when “the newspapers were saturated with celebrity death,” said Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett were two figures whose lives and deaths, it turns out, sum up many of “the preoccupations of Johnson’s art.” After all, Johnson made his “first big splash” in the art world with a 1984 piece that incorporated the names and images of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Natalie Wood, James Dean, and Sal Mineo—most of them figures known “for their bizarre and tragic deaths as much as for their talent.” Another work creates a comic-strip-style account of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. But Johnson’s fascination with celebrity was really just part of his exploration of a wider subject matter—“L.A. itself.” Many later photographs captured the dark but neon-lit “urban flatland” that defines the city. In one, he returned to shoot the now-abandoned­ Perino’s Restaurant, located around the corner from the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was killed.

Johnson’s “relentlessly bleak” images focus on the seamy subtext that lies just beneath his home city’s supposed glamour, said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. Though his “graphically sleek” photographs often bristle with bright colors,­ they capture his own ­distinctive version of L.A. noir. One of the most “devastating” images in the exhibition actually was taken just a few months ago. Through the window of a run-down L.A. bungalow, the viewer sees “the familiar outline of an Emmy award. Wings held high, her body straining forward,” the statuette recalls Tinker Bell, Never Never Land, and the tragedy of a celebrity culture­ that refuses to grow up.

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