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Larry Sultan at the MoCP

by Lara Bullock

above from Backyard, Woodland Hills, 2002. image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Larry Sultan concludes his artist’s statement in the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s exhibition entitled The Valley with the phrase, “I’m home again.” Instead of the Dorothean homecoming of familiarity, comfort, and love, however, Sultan’s photographs create a depiction contrary to what is usually associated with the Los Angeles suburb, notorious for its malls and vapid “Val-speak.” The eight photographs in the exhibition feature suburban homes which are rented out to serve as sets for the adult film industry and the unclad stars that occupy them, giving new meaning to suburbia as bedroom community.

The Valley is the result of a commission to do a magazine story on a day in the life of a porn star. “I started in the latter part of 1998 and shot until 2003. I went to probably a hundred sets,” he relates in an interview which appeared on the Traditional Fine Arts Organization’s website, “I think this is kind of a swan song for our post-war American family dreams.” If these dreams are a pure, safe haven, where mom cooks and cleans and dad barbeques, then he is right. Crime is common in the suburbs and the nuclear family is as good as, well, nuked. This fact is underlined by Sultan for, here, the adult film stars are stand-ins for the familial constructs that had been the subjects of his work with his parents in Pictures from Home. The paterfamilias is replaced by a pensive, nude Adonis in Topanga Skyline Drive #1, and the contorted female figure in Kitchen floor, Reseda resembles a pornographic Lolita more than a sister or mother.

Yet, once one gets over the shocking revelation that the Bradys may have rented their house out to an aspiring Ron Jeremy by day (which is actually a common phenomenon; around 80% of porn films are made in the Valley), the images themselves become interesting. Actual coitus is relegated to the interstices of the photographs if it is present at all, and subjects appear in states of boredom, contemplation, and exhaustion. Through this concentration he transforms the arousal usually associated with pornography into banality and the mundane into the impending site of sexual excess.

Despite the dramatic angles and expressive postures, the actors resist the glamorization of the porn star as is typically found in magazines or films. Alternately, the viewer or photographer is responsible for any erotic elements through metaphors of penetration and exposure. Sultan’s photographs are, in a sense, more about the viewers than the subjects in the images. He allows us to assume the roles of detective, forensic scientist, and voyeur as we try to make sense of the uncanny collocation of erotica amidst domesticity; the tantalizing cinematic lighting; and a combination of camera angles and colors framing ennui. The titles of the photographs correspondingly contain a variety of implications, from personal acknowledgement, as in Tasha’s Third Film, to objective labeling such as Den, Santa Clarita.

Art historically, Sultan adopts several tropes renowned for their seductive power. One photograph, entitled Sharon Wild, for example, adopts the direct, ambiguous gaze of Manet’s prostitute Olympia, and also alludes to photographer Jeff Wall’s Picture for Women, by virtue of the photographic medium itself and the acknowledged presence of the photographer. The Valley then results in a sort of art historical mise-en-abîme, the outward reference of which is to the disparity between actuality and the ideas behind cultural mores and constructs like suburbia.

Larry Sultan: The Valley will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography through March 24.

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