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Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel @ Stephen Wirtz

Ties, 1978/2014, C-print, 33 3/4 x 42"

 

They were two guys  from Van Nuys – guys  for whom freeways, malls, subdivisions and Hollywood billboards formed the backdrop to their youth.  They were not, by their own estimations, likely candidates for cultural monkey wrenching.  But when Larry Sultan (1945-2009) met Mike Mandel at SFAI in 1973, they realized that photography couldn’t be moved forward by repeating the work of the f/64 group which held sway for far longer than most people realize in the years before Conceptualism took hold. 

To catalyze fresh thinking the young artists read Marshall McLuhan, Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders) and Wilson Bryan Key (Subliminal Seduction). For career guidance they turned to Robert Heinecken; and for a decade beginning in the mid-1970s they twisted the dials of cultural authority — legally commandeering billboards and talking their way into corporate and government photo archives from which they culled the enigmatic touring show called Evidence.  Documents of both collaborative efforts are on view in We Make You Us, an exhibition of some of the strongest and strangest conceptual art ever to emerge from the Bay Area.  
 
Ooh La La (detail), 1982/2014, c-print, 50 x 61 5/8"

Determined to boost awareness of how mass media creates and manipulates desire, they appropriated well-known advertising strategies and re-presented them on donated billboards, forcing passersby to wonder if they were viewing corporate ad campaigns or elaborate hoaxes. Their scheme represented a perfect confluence of opposing interests: Outdoor media companies, under fire for visual pollution, wanted to burnish their image by giving away space to artists; Sultan and Mandel, seeking to expose the inner workings of advertising, took the offers and turned the tables.  But, as the documentation presented here shows, distinguishing between these competing agendas wasn’t always easy. 

Ties, which appeared at the corner of Kearny and Pine, convincingly masqueraded as an ad for upscale neckwear.  Oohh La La!, a billboard in Boulder, Colorado showed a mushroom cloud captioned with those same words, making light of the unthinkable.  Japan mysteriously pictured a family staring at a blaze through an apartment window, its curtain pulled back by an unseen robed figure — revealed in other ads from the same series to be Jesus.  In the Bay Area, Sultan and Mandel installed billboards that mimicked public information campaigns. They were, of course, entirely facetious, and as visually stupefying as the real thing.  Other billboards, like Oranges on Fire, which appeared in Emeryville, were just plain absurd, inside jokes that resonated only with the artists, but were construed by viewers to have all sorts of meanings which artists saw as victory.  It confirmed their ability to disrupt the top-down flow of institutional communication.  Their confidence buoyed, Sultan and Mandel took aim at bigger targets: automakers, tobacco companies and news purveyors.   
 
Japan (from series Trouble Spots) 1988/2014, c-print, 33 7/8 x 42"

In Chicago Workshop (1978), the artists papered over an existing sign, leaving intact only the headline (“The New Chevrolet”) and the tagline (“Now that’s more like it”).  It appeared next to an altered Marlboro billboard in which a cigarette droops from a male model’s lips –deflating the phallic poses typical of cigarette ads.  Complicating matters further: in their photo of the scene, the artists captured, in the middle distance, a black man driving a Buick Electra.  Such an act today might be labeled profiling, but it accurately described the demographic and psychographic calculations built into Big Tobacco’s addiction schemes.  A similar life-imitating-art quality beams out from Electric Energy Consumption, a 1976 photo of a billboard placed in the Mission District.  In it we see two scowling women at the bottom of the frame and a magnificently dented ’63 Studebaker exiting an alley.  From the building on which the ad is mounted, signs jut into view; the closest reads “Sun Rest Corner,” a convergence of imagery worthy of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. 

If such interventions fail to wield the power they once did, that is because of how widely they’ve been imitated.  From Barbara Kruger to Banksy, public acts of appropriation backed by ironic photo documentation, have become the lingua franca of postmodernity.  
 
Infinitely weirder and more far-reaching conceptually are the pictures Sultan and Mandel assembled from corporate and government archives. Armed with only an NEA grant and a letter of introduction from SFMOMA, the artists requested and gained access to the image archives of 76 organizations.  They included Bechtel Corporation, General Atomic Company, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the San Jose Police Department and the United States Department of the Interior.  Over a two-year period the artists surveyed some two million photos. They selected 89. These they juxtaposed without captions and displayed under the title Evidence, an exhibition that started at SFMOMA and toured the U.S. (A book of the same title was published simultaneously.)  The pictures, 27 of which are on view here, are among the strangest I’ve laid eyes on.  Most depict isolated moments in scientific and industrial experiments we can’t begin to fathom; the rest were taken

Untitled images from Evidence, 1977, all 8 x 10"
 
at crime scenes, the nature of which isn’t clear, either.  Sequenced for maximum impact, they amplify the inherent strangeness of photography and its dependence on context. 
 
What, for example are we to make of a noose-shaped length of rope held by a disembodied hand?  A giant insect-shaped inflatable restrained by guy wires?  A gloved hand suffocating a monkey?  A mummified blob that looks like something Hans Bellmer and Franz West might have created?  A Ford Thunderbird set ablaze in the desert.  Or a “Lightening Field” of poles topped by triangular metal boxes? 
 
Sultan and Mandel were probably aware of the art-historical references activated, but any associations were byproducts.  Their method, as they stated at the outset, was to select only the most sinister photos, and from that we can only conclude that their intent was to portray industry in the worst possible light.  This they did by severing any connections between the activities pictured and the utopian ideals professed by science.  The lasting impact of their effort, however, was to skewer still-extant assumptions about the evidentiary nature of photography: that it conveys truth through narratives that reasonable people can agree on.  These pictures foreclosed that option. Thus, if we judge art by its open-endedness and the degree to which it forces us to question our responses, then Evidence, by dint of the debates it ignited and double takes it will forever prompt, occupies a unique position.   
 
Given the secrecy surrounding corporate and government activities, it’s difficult to imagine two guys from Van Nuys or anyplace else repeating this exercise anytime soon.  I mean seriously, can you imagine Google, Facebook or NASA responding to an artist’s request for unlimited access with an invitation to c’mon down? Hmm…I didn't think so.   
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel: “We Make You Us: Billboards and Evidence” @ Stephen Wirtz through May 31, 2014.

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