Homesick: On Larry Sultan at LACMA
By Kate WolfFebruary 16, 2015
Larry Sultan: Here and Home
November 9, 2014–July 19, 2015
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036
IN THE PHOTOGRAPHY of Larry Sultan, it’s the everyday, the ordinary, and the vernacular that prevail. A house in the suburbs, whether one located in the neighborhood where Sultan grew up or a community that mirrors it, provides the setting for half of the major bodies of work on display at the artist’s first large-scale retrospective, which opened at LACMA in November. With its title, Here and Home rightly seems to locate the compass of Sultan’s work while also acknowledging the subtle disconnect it thrives on. Home may be the place by which everywhere else is measured, but it’s more of a tracking point or idea than a possible destination.
Still, the influence of place — particularly Southern California, where he grew up — on Sultan’s art is a profound one. Born in Brooklyn, he moved with his parents at the age of four to the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys. After majoring in political science at the University of Santa Barbara and a brief stint as a union organizer in Chicago, he turned to photojournalism, deciding to formally study photography. His tenure as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design was brief: he left after just a few weeks, choosing instead to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, after which he stayed up north till his death in 2009.
In a videotaped interview that accompanies the exhibition we learn that as an art student in San Francisco in the 1970s, Sultan “didn’t understand the language of academic critique, and […] didn’t feel comfortable sitting in café culture.” He was more interested in “Bob’s Big Boy combo plates with Thousand Island dressing and french fries,” and for him, “looking at billboards on Sunset Strip was more interesting than going to museums.”
Even if this seems to signal a case of nostalgia, instead of being sentimental (or solely sardonic) about where he’s from, the longing in Sultan’s images is always met with interrogation.
“A modern nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home, at once,” the scholar Svetlana Boym points out. Sultan’s is a “reflective” nostalgia, which Boym writes,
does not pretend to rebuild the mythical place called home […]. This type of nostalgic narrative is ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary. [Reflective] [n]ostalgics […] are aware of the gap between identity and resemblance; the home is in ruins or, on the contrary, has been just renovated and gentrified beyond recognition. This defamiliarization and sense of distance drives them to tell their story, to narrate the relationship between past, present and future.
Such is the crux of much of Sultan’s work, from his early collaborations with fellow SFAI alum Mike Mandel — which skew the pair’s youthful fascination with billboards and other popular media, and unlock and recontextualize the forgotten, vintage image of the archive — to his solo practice: a lushly colored, large-format, pseudo-documentary style that combines staged scenes with more traditional notions of documentary photography, easily collapsing the two.
Sultan’s images, though they are sometimes both staged and digitally altered, hardly come off as resulting from meticulous big-budget productions like those of Gregory Crewdson, or the technical ingenuity of someone like Jeff Wall. Instead, their photographic pretense (perhaps misleadingly) seems more analogous to formal portraiture: there is a certain stillness, stiffness, and sense of posing. An emphasis is placed on subtle gesture, and facial expressions, though often loaded and intense, mostly verge on ambiguous. (Beyond the parallel of a suburban setting, Sultan’s fondness for Raymond Carver — a writer he once said had inspired him the most — whose short stories are punctuated with clipped lines of verbs, quick dialogue, and oblique interior feeling, clearly comes through in his work.) Looking at the pictures, one is reminded of Robert Bresson’s definition of performance: “No actors. […] No parts. […] But the use of working models, taken from life. BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors).”
Take the selections from Homeland (2006–2009), for instance, a group of large-scaled exceptionally detailed prints, which open the show. We see Latino day laborers Sultan hired from outside big box stores like Home Depot going about a series of actions: carrying Tupperware containers across an empty field bordering an upscale housing development; collecting stones from a bucolic creek on the edge of more tract housing; sitting under an almond tree in full bloom; standing in a group inside a batting cage. While we may be aware of a framework, the series lacks pointed dramatization or easily definable characters; except for the photograph with the brook, in which one of the boys is pictured with a rock in hand, walking away from his bucket and, perhaps menacingly, toward the row of white houses in the distance, there’s little to indicate a preconceived story being acted out. The scenes are simple and mysterious: set in the interstices between uncultivated terrain and suburban development. Sultan explained them, in part, as representing the marginalized, invisible space of undocumented workers in this country.
But the environments depicted in the photographs also seem notable in light of the rest of Sultan’s work in that they resist a stark distinction between a pure and adulterated vision of nature; here one always borders the other and they often overlap. In Backyard Hercules (2009), the camera is positioned at the top of a small incline, looking out at a valley of homes, tall deciduous and eucalyptus trees, hedges, and a swimming pool. The baked blond grass in the foreground gives way to some stumpy shrubs and a fruit tree, then a fence, and beyond that manicured green lawns — yet foliage spills out into every other part of the frame, obscuring the homes and their boundaries and flattening out perspective.
A number of the photographs from The Valley (1997–2003), the next series on display in the exhibition, follow a comparable structure. In a few, Sultan chooses to foreground flowers in front of sex scenes on the porn sets he visited around Los Angeles for the project, originally a commission for the magazine Maxim. More than just an act of discretion, the flora gives the photographs a sense of boundary and circumscription: the viewer isn’t placed squarely behind the scenes of a production, but in a more intricate space, at once in and apart from the action on set, and inevitably on film. In Cabana (2000), a border of leggy rosebushes blurs and masks much of the detail of an orgy sequence taking place on a pallet of lawn-chair cushions behind it; and in Mulholland Drive #2 (2000), a large white vase of (fake?) flowers in the foreground intersects both the actresses entwined on camera, blocking their faces, and the equipment and technician being used to film them. (In a nice twist of geometry, the arrangement also adjoins the blooming plants pictured in an “antique” pastoral tapestry on the wall opposite it.) Indeed, flowers and plants are a motif throughout the series. The focal point of Tasha’s Third Film (1998) — a brilliantly dreamlike conjunction of interior and exterior space, boredom and titillation, spectatorship and participation, where a living room of dozing actors gives way to a glass window where a group of people in lawn chairs is watching the sex being filmed on the other side of it — is a shiny gold bowl of paper red roses resting on a speaker that serves as a kind of joint between the two realities.
In The Valley, Sultan uses inventive framing to communicate the metafictional aspect of his pictures, often providing a simultaneous view of an image and its underpinnings. Here the suggestion of the suburban home as a type of film set is literalized, but it’s an idea that’s also explored in his best-known and longest sustained work, Pictures from Home (1983–’92). The exhibition reinforces the connection with the first photograph we encounter from the series: Sultan’s father is framed, backlit in the window of his house, which is bathed in an impossibly greenish, artificial-seeming light. A ladder rests near a bush of pink bougainvillea outside on the lawn, as if to signal the provisionality of the scene. In the show’s catalog, the same picture, Los Angeles, Early Evening (1986), is reproduced with a quote from the book Sultan eventually published of this material in 1992:
Sometime in the mid-1950s, a movie company rented our house to use in a television commercial. The entire front lawn was filled up with large lights and reflectors, a crane, cameras and a crew […] When they finished lighting the front of our house it was floating in a soft miraculous glow. It was a dream house.
The cinematic quality of Pictures from Home seems fitting for a project that was in fact inspired by movies, in this case Sultan’s parents’ home movies, which he explains in the exhibition video as “documents, but they also have the sense that a family projects its dream onto film emulsion.” From these found documents of family life, Sultan created large grids of stills, isolating images from their original narrative sequence and reconfiguring them in the paratactic manner he’d already established with Mandel in such self-published books as How to Read Music in One Evening (1974) and Evidence (1977). Like both of those projects, which are also made up of appropriated material, the process seems an almost surgical one of extraction and grafting. (The seminal Evidence is comprised of selections from the archives of nearly eighty California institutions that range from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to aerospace corporations and university laboratories — a glimpse into what Carter Ratcliff has called a “world where hard hats go with suits and ties.”)
Perhaps due to the intimate and familiar nature of the imagery, it’s easier than elsewhere to fill in the connective tissue that’s been left out of the stills. While many of the film stills highlight and amplify uncanny moments, such as a horse that appears to be sinking into a muddy pit, a heart-shaped hunk of raw meat being gorged with a skewer, the shiny cross emblazoned on a little boy’s head — bugs in the system of family happiness and postwar middle-class aspiration — others retain a vitality and hopefulness. This sentiment is part of what Sultan examines in the original pictures produced for the series, questioning what’s become of his family’s dreams of a house, a garden, and the good life out in sunny California. His parents are now presented as vulnerable, aging: the swimming pool beside which his father stands is empty; the mess of papers on his desk a random collection of coupons, bills, and business cards — the trivial remnants of a life. However, these photographs are more than a depressing record of decay; they are also humorous and empathic, and in many cases formally compelling and beautiful, radiant with warm, golden light. Initially intended as an extended portrait of Sultan’s father — a vice president of sales at Schick Razor Company who lost his job in his early fifties because he refused to move back to the East Coast for work — the series becomes an in-depth look at the negotiations of identity and family mythology between a son and his parents and, in a Pirandellian turn, a creator and his characters. Through the writing that accompanies the book (sadly now out of print), Sultan narrates this tension:
My father is very philosophical. There is a picture of him sitting on a bed all dressed up, and he said: “Look, I am really happy to help you with this work, but I really want you to know that’s you sitting on the bed, that this is a self-portrait.”
Since Here and Home is arranged in reverse chronological order, it’s less apparent at first how much Pictures from Home resonates with Sultan’s early work. Those familiar with his billboard collaborations with Mike Mandel, though, might look at a photograph like Reading in Bed (1988) — in which Sultan’s parents are captured each holding up a publication to their face, she with her Robinsons-May catalog, he with what is likely some kind of business newsletter — and be reminded of the human eyes that look out of cut-up and repurposed magazine advertisements in the billboard You’re So Easily Influenced (1983), or of the imagery and logo of another billboard that deals with gender stereotypes in media, We Make You Us (1985), a play on cigarette ads. The bizarre, almost Gnostic portrait of men in corporate culture that emerges from Evidence finds an echo in the ephemera from Sultan’s father’s time at Schick, included in the exhibition: strange business convention photos of his parents dressed up in various versions of “call girl” and “pimp” costumes; corporate memos; and an unsettling group picture from a business training course in which every face besides his father’s has been scratched out.
For the purpose of the show, this early period, roughly 1973–1983, is allocated to a single room. The material is nonetheless rich enough to fill an exhibition of its own. (For a fuller evaluation see D.A.P.’s 2012 book Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.) Since all this work is collaborative, it’s understandable in this context that it has been condensed. But it’s a shame that it closes instead of opens the exhibition. The show’s curator, Rebecca Morse, could have made more of an effort to accentuate the myriad possible associations between Sultan’s foundational and later bodies of work. The room’s placement as a closet of all things conceptual in Sultan’s practice also creates something of a false dichotomy, since he continued to collaborate with Mandel and other artists to create installation and interventional projects until his death, many of which are not well known or well documented. A more extensive installation might have included at least a reference to some of these pieces for balance.
The “Study Hall” room of the show — a nod to what we are told was Sultan’s daily habit of taking a break from work for reading — is completely devoid of books except the exhibition catalog, which is confusing. Since many of Sultan’s publications are out of print and/or expensive to buy, it’s a missed opportunity to give people a chance to interact with them. Instead the room is filled with iPads that cycle through an uncaptioned collection of Sultan’s outtakes and source material — all interesting, but a little overwhelming to take in after walking through a collection of nearly 100 photographs.
In the end, these missteps come off as a credit to the complexity of Sultan’s career, proof of the difficulty of representing an artist with many facets in a straightforward, “best of”–type retrospective. If the number of devoted former students and colleagues who were present at the show’s opening last fall is any indication, though, hopefully it won’t be too long a wait before someone else takes on that challenge.
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