Los Angeles

Larry Sultan: Here and Home at LACMA

“Isn’t imagination really the final measure of intelligence?” — Larry Sultan

Picture it: golf courses, lawn furniture, sprinklers, empty pools, groceries, plush carpets you can almost feel under your feet, sunglasses, bulky watches, a Dodger’s game droning on TV, frosted glass, floor-to-ceiling curtains, a pink terry-cloth tracksuit, patterned linoleum, and green—the pervasive chartreuse of freshly cut grass or new growth is evident in almost every single image in Larry Sultan’s series Pictures from Home (1983–1992). This body of work is a personal reflection on the aftermath of the postwar American dream in suburbia. In it, Sultan documented his own parents in their home in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles, and this is the central body of work in Here and Home, the vast and stunning retrospective of Sultan’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is also the first retrospective of the artist’s work since his death in 2009 at the age of 63.

Larry Sultan. Discussion, Kitchen Table, from the series “Pictures from Home,” 1985; chromogenic print; 30 x 40 in. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

Larry Sultan. Discussion, Kitchen Table, from the series Pictures from Home, 1985; chromogenic print; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

“In 1972, my own escape from the suburbs of my youth was fresh enough to count, in my mind, as an act of rebellion.” — Larry Sultan

Sultan was an influential teacher and artist in the San Francisco Bay area for forty years. Beginning in 1973, he collaborated with fellow artist Mike Mandel on a series of absurd billboards placed in various locations around California. Featuring images of oranges burning in a man’s hands (Oranges on Fire, 1975), or a handful of ties being tossed at the viewer (Ties, 1978), these images were meant to subvert the medium and disrupt the subliminal messages inherent to advertising. In the introduction of the exhibition catalogue, Philip Gefter calls Sultan and Mandel “the Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray of the Pictures Generation.” Their playful ideas about recontextualization led to their collaborative masterpiece, Evidence (1975–77), in which they culled and curated images from the archives of government agencies, public utilities, university laboratories, and private corporations. The images were removed from context and printed in a book without captions, thus heightening their already surreal nature.

Larry Sultan, Mike Mandel. Oranges on Fire, 1975; photo mural; 10 x 22 ft. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

Larry Sultan, Mike Mandel. Oranges on Fire, 1975; photo mural; 10 x 22 ft. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

“Coming from L.A., where most of the culture is automotive, and most of the images are things you don’t choose to see, billboards are a powerful context for imagery. In fact, growing up in L.A., you’d drive down Sunset Strip and look at the billboards instead of going to art galleries. It’s an awful thing to admit, but the advertisers were the visionaries of our time. They gave us notions of who we should become. Our myths of heaven and hell.” — Larry Sultan

In the late 1970s, Sultan withdrew from his collaboration with Mandel and the Picture Generation’s postmodern ideals and returned to pure photography, which resulted in his ethereal underwater images of people taking swimming lessons at a public pool (Swimmers, 1978–1982). Sultan worried that these images were too painterly, beautiful, self-indulgent, and irrelevant to the art making of the time, but they clearly show an unselfconscious dive into the subconscious and emotion, and serve as a bridge from his earlier postmodern collaborations to his later, much more serious bodies of work.

Larry Sultan. Thanksgiving, from the series “Pictures from Home,” 1985; chromogenic print; 20 x 24 in. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

Larry Sultan. Thanksgiving, from the series Pictures from Home, 1985; chromogenic print; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

”I remember arguing with my father over fifteen years ago about a photograph I made of my mother. It was a very simple and direct picture of her standing in front of a sliding glass door holding a cooked turkey on a silver platter. He accused me of creating an image that had less to do with her than with my own stereotypes of how people age. I argued that our conflicting notions about who mom is and how she should be represented are based on our different relationships to her. She is my mother but his wife. I pointed out that in almost every picture of her that he has taken she is posed like a model selling one thing or another.” — Larry Sultan

Sultan’s cinematic Pictures from Home (1983–92) considers the fallout of the postwar American Dream. Here his parents represent the diaspora of middle-class white people moving from the East Coast to greener pastures out West. Thanksgiving (1985) is at once so disgustingly grotesque and so recognizable in our cultural psyche as part of “what a mother does” that it is heartbreaking to see. When he decided to stage and photograph his parents in their own home in the late 1980s, Sultan was drawing on his various instincts; he turned the imagination and subliminal messaging of advertising into an investigation of the subconscious digestion of thousands of images and myths of the American home and dream. The investigative aspect of Evidence was fulfilled by documenting his parent’s lives before their deaths. Sultan said his impulse was to “take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.” The dreamlike allure of Swimmers is recalled in the incredible beauty of these images—the depth of light, color, and texture is unique to Sultan—and they give the odd feeling that the lens is never completely forgotten.

Larry Sultan. Woman in Curlers, from the series “The Valley,” 2002; chromogenic print; 60 x 50 in. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

Larry Sultan. Woman in Curlers, from the series The Valley, 2002; chromogenic print; 60 x 50 in. Courtesy of the Estate of Larry Sultan.

In a later series, The Valley (1997–2003), Sultan photographed the porn industry, which largely operates in the same area he grew up in. In the San Fernando Valley, porn companies rent middle-class suburban mansions, much like the house in which Sultan was raised, to stage carnal scenes in these domestic spaces. Sultan chooses to focus on the more mundane aspects of a porn shoot as an extension of his exploration of the myth of the American Dream. Woman in Curlers (2002) is tragic. The subject is overly done up, with a deep sadness in her eyes. Viewers know that the context is the porn industry, but she could just as well be his overly made-up mother preparing the Thanksgiving turkey.

Larry Sultan: Here and Home is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 22, 2015.

Share

Leave a Reply