Larry Sultan, Domestic Theater @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1984 and 2007. 20 of the prints come from the Untitled Home Movie Stills series and are hung as a single grid. Each print is sized roughly 18×23 inches and is available in an edition of 10. The other 15 works are sized between roughly 19×23 and 42×52 inches and are variously available in editions of 6 and 10. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: This tips of the waves sampler show brings the work of Larry Sultan back into view. The California photographer died in 2009, and while an excellent 2014-2015 retrospective show made stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Milwaukee, Sultan’s photographs haven’t been shown in New York since 2004. As a quick survey, this gallery introduction misses Evidence (1977), his essential collaboration with Mike Mandel, but crisply ticks off key selections from Pictures from Home (1983), Untitled Home Movie Stills (1984-1993), and The Valley (1997-2003), and interleaves in a few of his later editorial images.

Sultan’s Pictures from Home series deservedly belongs on a short list of landmark family-centered photography projects of the past half century. The images follow Sultan’s aging parents in their daily lives in early 1980s Los Angeles and Palm Desert, California, mixing sensitive observation with a bit of directorial staging. As seen here, his results capture the quirky domestic rhythms of life – an uncooked Thanksgiving turkey slathered with not-yet-melted butter, morning sunlight shining through the Business page of the local newspaper, and his father practicing his golf swing on the green shag rug of the living room while watching TV – while also uncovering the quietly melancholic moods that slip in between the mundane routines. His pictures find the lingering space between his parents (even when they are collaborating in the picture-making), doing so in a manner that highlights both his love for them and the loneliness that seeps underneath their lives. His images of his mother posing against the wall while his father intently watches the Dodgers game and his shirtless father peering into the empty swimming pool while the golf course sprinklers twist in the background feel both uniquely American and enduringly universal.

At first glance, Sultan’s related Untitled Home Movie Stills have an archival literalness that is disarmingly familiar. There are pictures of his family on vacations, his father mowing the lawn, and Sultan as a young boy being held by his parents, jumping through a hula hoop, and floating on a rubber raft. As a group, they capture a version of the American dream childhood, filled with fishing trips and visits to Disneyland. But these home movies are also a form of parentally manufactured evidence (connecting back to Sultan’s earlier project), or a choreographed performance for the camera, where selected scenes and images are transformed into stand-ins for memories. When we then iteratively remember the pictures and not the real events, the incident with the bear, the red convertible, the horse in the hole, and his mother’s jaunty hats slowly become family mythology, the particular stories are told and retold until they become shared lore. While Sultan’s repurposed stills may seem obvious, the more these works age, the more layered and conceptual they seem to get.

The intertwined ideas of performance and domestic life get amplified much further in Sultan’s series The Valley. In these images, Sultan goes behind the scenes on pornography shoots set in suburban homes, pointing his camera not at the sex taking place but at the activity going on around the filming. The tract houses mix a California-style openness (plate glass windows, patios, and swimming pools) with the everyday furnishings of their absent owners, the places becoming stage sets for the tangled bare bodies. Sultan’s photographs combine flashes of illicit voyeurism with views of bored actors and actresses waiting for their scenes and film crews setting and tearing down bulky gear. Many of the images are constructed around visual juxtapositions – high heels and dogs, curlers and legs in the air, bright lights and crowds of onlookers, explicit encounters and everyday realities – and these layers, overlaps, and pairings give the images their smart dissonance. Sultan pulls back the curtain, revealing fantasy and mystery to be staged variations of the generic and the mundane.

This refresher course on Larry Sultan will appeal most to those who don’t know his work; and for the NYC photo students who will discover him here for the first time, this small show will certainly provide some high quality inspiration. But for those in the photography community who have followed Sultan’s career more closely, there is very little on view that can be considered new, aside from perhaps a handful of Sultan’s lesser known editorial commissions, which often push the staging themes that run through his work even further. So as reintroductions go, this one is effective – how unexpected viewers will find it depends largely on how much Sultan-specific context they bring with them to the gallery.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $13600 and $56300, based on size and place in the editions. Sultan’s work is only intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices raing between roughly $5000 and $35000.

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