LARRY JOHNSON At MARGO LEAVIN GALLERY 812 N. Robertson Blvd. Through March 21
Larry Johnson's work at its best is like a fine rare cocktail - a Bloodhound, perhaps, or a Corpse Reviver, or a London Fog - a heady riot of Ektacolor meant to be savored, and to disorient. Daunting fluff, if you like. (Fluff not being a pejorative.) Why daunting? Because of its aesthetic immaculateness, its being hermetically sealed. It's meant to intimidate, while still evincing his vast wit, but not to be cold, as his critics fancy it. (As if anything this plush could be cold.) The beauty of the work is that it's not meant to be entered into or identified with, any more than a Richard Quine or Vincente Minnelli film. Why feign universality, when all art is really about the breaks in its maker's thought processes? The question is whether or not those ellipses are worth investigating, and Johnson's - drenched in a little honey and a whole lot of vitriol - never fail to be that and more.
That said, many of the new works currently on view at Margo Leavin Gallery register as a little hurried and obviously transitional, while others easily rival the sublimity of his best older works. As little about content as ever, the works most in line with his signature style are the six prints of Untitled (Literal Bolan), each consisting of a (well-typeset) Marc Bolan song title at the center of a different field of the kind of eye-searing, gorgeous and patently artificial color that only a color photographic processor can spit out, and that Johnson's a master at orchestrating.
The rest of the exhibition represents a drastic departure from form, with the assaultive color-field backdrops mentioned above forsaken for newsprintlike ivory. The bulk of the work is given over to photographically enlarged and colored thumbnail-like illustrations. Color remains foremost in the strongest works, but it's now more Eastman Color than Technicolor, or rather more Easter egg than blinding bombast. Best here are Untitled (One Down, Three Across) and Untitled (Nathan Lane), the latter containing the show's greatest point of wit, an enlarged, massively florid Johnson signature worthy of Jacqueline Susann or Marlene Dietrich (in an apt pale-orange field). The former piece is stunning, with a Transformer-like abstract sculptural shape made of a crossword-puzzle field in black and green-gold atop a radiant drawing of the (in reality probably quite seedy) exterior of Frank N Hanks cocktail bar that looks as if it could've been lifted from a Bergdorf Goodman ad circa 1958.
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But the centerpiece and real jewel of the show is Untitled (Perino's Front, Perino's Rear), two horizontal panels hung on opposite sides of the gallery, each with a large black and painfully lush powder-blue drawing of the defunct L.A. restaurant seen from the front and back. These illustrations drip elegance (and practically gin) in a style not unlike the Frank n Hanks piece, but ultimately resemble a matchbook cover from a Tokyo Ginza bar circa 1962, a stylistic reference point that characterizes much of the show. If the exhibition as a whole proves Johnson not infallible in some respects, it also offers two glimpses of him burning a whole new, possibly more subtle path for his Technicolor explosions.