Thursday, May 18, 2017

Larry Sultan's California at SFMOMA

Larry Sultan (1946-2009) was a well-known California art photographer who I had never heard of before visiting SFMOMA last weekend. He was a child whose parents were part of the Jewish diaspora from the Old Country of Brooklyn, New York to the New World of San Fernando Valley, California. Sultan went to art school in the 1970s at the San Francisco Art Institute, which is where he met his partner in whimsical art crimes, Mike Mandel, who is still alive and being given an exhibit that opens on the same third floor as Sultan this Saturday the 20th. The two young bad boys collaborated on all kinds of stunts, including art-fake billboards on real billboard spaces. I think I even remember seeing "Oranges on Fire" somewhere South of Market in the mid-1970s, though my memory may be hallucinating.

As a solo artist, Sultan's breakout work was a book and exhibit called Pictures from Home, documenting his healthy, vital looking parents growing old. The vision is clear-eyed almost to the point of brutality, but is leavened by humor and kindness. At this installation, there are wonderful quotes on the wall where Sultan is describing how pissed off his father was about the representations of him and his wife, and Larry's response, "She may be your wife, but she's my mother, and I have a different view of her." It's like an Oedipal Marx Brothers routine. (The picture above is mom and dad with faces obscured by periodicals, a biz journal for dad and a Robinsons catalog for mom.)

Pictures from Home in this exhibition slides without any transition into Sultan's 2004 The Valley, where he documented professional porn movie shoots in rented homes in the neighborhood he had grown up in. Boogie Nights may have taken place in the 70s, but the same houses with the same kitchen cabinets were still being used in the 1990s.

Sultan's final major work was called Homeland, and it explores the liminal spaces between suburban housing sprawl and nature sprouting right from its edges. This is where I grew up and continue to live, and Sultan gets everything right, from the light to the strangeness. Check it out, and also click on this link to his still-extant website for his portfolio of San Francisco Society. His photo of Dede Wilsey in an emerald dress, posing in front of her gold living room curtains, with an Asian maid slightly out of focus lighting candles, is some kind of masterpiece.

2 comments:

janinsanfran said...

The Wilsey is marvelous, but how about the pensive, pretentious Newsome? :-)

Michael Strickland said...

The SF Society photos are all bizarre in different ways. I giggled through the whole slide show.