LOS ANGELES — Larry Sultan: Here and Home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the first large-scale retrospective of the American photographer, who died in 2009. Sultan, who was born in 1946 and grew up in the San Fernando Valley, is most famous for his carefully arranged scenes of suburban life, uncanny in their perfect stillness and precision. He also produced a large body of photographs for magazines and participated in playful conceptual collaborations with the artist Mike Mandel. Here and Home brings together these facets of Sultan’s work, and provides few extended labels for individual works, allowing for multiple readings of the images. As such, the exhibition emphasizes the consistency of Sultan’s open-ended approach, particularly the way his oeuvre questions the concept of photographic truth-telling and definitive interpretation itself.
The earliest works in the exhibition come from Sultan’s collaborations with Mandel, which lasted almost 30 years. The two men met as students in the San Francisco Art Institute’s graduate program, where Sultan would eventually teach before becoming an influential teacher at the California College of Arts. Together Sultan and Mandel made art characterized by a punk energy entirely different from the contemplative stillness of Sultan’s solo photographic work. The brightly anarchic “Oranges on Fire” is one of 15 billboards the two artists created in Los Angeles between 1973 and 1989, surprising unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians with absurd versions of advertising imagery and slogans. “Evidence,” one of the highlights of the exhibition, contains images from the archives of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Environmental Protection Agency, Northrop, Sunkist, National Semiconductor, and the General Atomic Company. Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Mandel and Sultan posed as an institution called “Clatworthy Colorvues” to gain access to these corporate archives. The photographs they culled are alternatively funny and nightmarish, building in flashes into a disorienting fantasia: a man with a bag, aflame, over his head; a monkey with a gloved human hand obscuring its face; metal monoliths arranged in a field of concrete; wires slithering from a machine; stairs covered in evil-looking black goo; an astronaut crawling on a tiled office floor.
Sultan’s most famous series, Pictures from Home (1983–92), features his parents in posed photographs and includes arrangements of vintage pictures, documents, and quotations from the artist and his parents. The series traces the life of Sultan’s Brooklyn-born father who moved the family to the San Fernando Valley in the 1940s and rose through the corporate ranks at Schick, though, as we learn from accompanying memos and other documents in the show, he was eventually fired after choosing not to move back to the East Coast following a merger. Images such as “My Mother Posing for Me” and “Dad with Golf Clubs” show the sort of trim and tan older couple common in Southern California, with backgrounds characterized by ’70s-style interiors, sprinklers, sun, and bougainvillea. But the composed nature of the photographs and the unsmiling faces of the subjects imbue the images with a feeling of sadness that, the viewer realizes, is projected by the younger Sultan’s constructed narrative of joblessness. As Sultan’s father notes in a quotation screened on a museum wall, “Whose truth is it? It’s your picture but my image. Like the photograph of me sitting on the bed; maybe I’m a little bored but not melancholy, longing for the old days of Schick or longing for death.”
In a different thematic vein, The Valley (1997–2003) portfolio began after Sultan was commissioned by Maxim to photograph a “day in the life of a porn star.” The subsequent photographs are almost laughably polite, with sex scenes carefully obscured behind vases or rosebushes in the foreground. The series also includes photographs that underscore the artificial nature of image-making in a somewhat obvious way: a silver curtain that conceals rigging, an inviting suburban street that is just a background, the Barbie-doll makeup of an actress that appears garish close-up.
The latest series in the exhibition, Homeland (2006–09), features images of the San Francisco Bay area. The series is markedly more muted in style than Sultan’s earlier, brightly colored work. Shot in the distinctive California light, many of the photographs show Hispanic men engaged in leisure activities: boating, walking to a gathering through a field, reclining under a tree laden with dazzling cherry blossoms. Sultan hired these men from day laborer waiting areas to be his models, so what appear as moments of recreation are actually images of men at work. The series is an example of Sultan’s manipulation and idealization of images, which draw our attention to the ambiguous meaning of the title: whose homeland is this?
Other photos in the series highlight the contrast between the landscaped tract houses and the majestic landscape. The images are hypnotically lush and dreamlike. In a Sultan quote accompanying the works, he observes the similarity between these landscapes and his favorite childhood places: “These places represent a small and vanishing patch of paradise that existed just outside of the boundaries of property and ownership; a free zone that eased my (adolescent) uncertainty and provided a safe place away from the judgments of others.”
In a video interview playing in the exhibition, Sultan speaks of his desire to create images of middle-class life that are dark and tender, not ironic. There is a simultaneous sensitivity and sharpness to his images that underscores his most consistent theme: the constructed nature of narratives, specifically those narratives we create because they impose a comforting sense of meaning onto disparate events and images. The exhibition, with its open-ended didactics, uncluttered organization, and focused presentation of Sultan’s series, is a fitting tribute to his probing body of work.
Larry Sultan: Here and Home continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA) through July 19.