You didn’t have to be a playuh to score in “Wild Knock,” Barry MacGregor Johnston’s first solo Los Angeles show, in which, with ambiguity and wit, the artist—a recent MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena—commented on the fragile quest for fame, using basketball as a metaphor for life. Johnston’s titles and found materials abounded with references to the sport, but it was his choreographed installation (you crisscrossed the gallery the same way a player crossover dribbles up the court) that animated the show.
Entering the gallery from the office, you confronted a nondescript door minus the hardware—the portal to this dreamscape. One side of the door was painted in ecclesiastical purple (or, think royalty—in this case basketball royalty), Midas-touched with a solid-gold security chain that read as bling. Off to the left rose a truncated, Escheresque stairway leading nowhere (the uncertain climb to success?). To the left of the stairway was a trampoline in which pennies rested, suggesting not only jumping ability but also the fallacy of unlimited earning potential. To its right towered a basketball backboard mounted on a pole upon whose base the artist strewed rose petals. A torn screen replaced the basket, a sad little window of opportunity.
Under the basket a boom box played the sounds of childhood summers—rainfall and crickets—at an increasing and decreasing volume that also evoked the way a player in action hears the crowd. To its left stood two vertical posts of an electronic security system that might guard a jail or a mansion. The odyssey concluded with a granite tombstone that read “#1,” as if the dream had ended up with “#1” either making it or dying in the process.
The show’s tone was low-key (to use another basketball term) but its payoff was high. Basketball success (substitute “art” for “basketball,” same tenuous result) is an adolescent fantasy, and anxiety darted through the installation. Though the work looked like a messy bedroom, or maybe a grotty playground, the dreamscape of this urban asphalt baller contained as much poetry as Symbolist ballads by dandy boulevardiers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud.