Through August 1, 2004
As part of my fieldwork for reviewing photographer Larry Sultan’s current show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I settled into the recliner and watched a dirty movie. It involved the usual twosomes and threesomes, buff and well-depilated and not entirely human. All the things that people always say about porn were true of this particular example: the plot went nowhere, the acting rarely rose to the level of amateurish, and the sex was repetitive and tedious, even on fast-forward. Yet despite its lousy production values and general crappiness, and without any permission from me, the movie did just what it intended: it turned me on.
That, after all, is why pornography outrages so many people—often, perhaps, the same people who find it compelling and even addictive. Depictions of sex have a kind of power over us, whether we welcome the experience of looking or recoil from it. Call it liberation or call it sin, but porn isn’t interested in what we think: it reaches down into our biological core. It is capable of strolling right past our mental security checkpoints and making itself at home in the most private parts of our psyche.
Sultan’s photographic project, The Valley, dramatizes the invasion of anxious respectability by libidinal longing, and its genius lies in the warm-hearted sympathy it extends to both sides of that drama. For the past five years, Sultan has been taking pictures of suburban houses and gardens in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley while they are being rented out by the day as settings for adult movies. Sultan first came to the Valley in the early 1950s, when his family moved from Brooklyn to the then-brand-new tract-house community in pursuit of the California dream. Today the Valley remains a thriving suburb, as well as the hub of America’s huge adult-film industry, and Sultan—now himself a suburban husband and father, albeit in Northern California—views his old hometown with the mix of affection and horror most of us feel toward our family and our past.
The fifty-three photographs in the show are beautifully composed, filled with rich color, and very large: most are 50×60 inches. An additional fifteen appear in the large-format catalogue, published by Scalo. While many photos these days follow the penis-enlargement principle of size for size’s sake, Sultan’s scale is justified by the telling details it makes visible—the sexually transmitted scratches on the back of a naked man who gazes wistfully out a kitchen window, the ubiquitous rolls of paper towels, the crumbs scattered across the belly of a tired woman lounging in a plastic chair, the traces of surgical stitches ringing her nipples.
Sultan’s primary subject, however, is not the moviemakers or their sexual hi-jinks, but the settings redolent of suburban dreams that the photographs reveal to be as wishful as the fantasies being played out by the pornographers.
One picture presents a living room that has been decorated to look like a 1960s hotel, with marble walls, a gold and crystal sconce, and a massively gnarled floor-to-ceiling column that looks like a stack of petrified wood. In one corner of the picture, a foot in a black platform shoe emerges from a tangle of multi-colored flesh; in the other, the good life abruptly collapses as the glamorous living room gives way to a scruffy hallway with chipped walls and a linoleum floor.
In a photograph titled "Child’s Bedroom, Calabassas," an old-fashioned metal-framed bed is surmounted by a lace-trimmed shelf piled with antique dolls, a vision of innocence that’s jarred by the clutch of dildos that someone—perhaps the blonde woman who can be glimpsed in the mirror—has left on the bed alongside a water bottle and some neatly folded clothes. But on closer inspection the room doesn’t seem so innocent after all. The dolls look battered and menacing, and so do the family photographs on a nearby shelf. And why is there a tank of propane on the bedside table?
A stunning shot of three casually dressed, fashionably goateed young men sitting in a nicely appointed bedroom shows them intently watching something that lies outside the photo frame, but that we know must be some kind of sexual performance. The men do not leer or laugh, however. Their expressions are solemn, rapt, even a bit fearful. They are witnesses to a mystery, and they cannot turn their eyes away.
Throughout his career Sultan has demonstrated a knack for finding the transcendent in unlikely places. In the 1970s he and Mike Mandel, a fellow graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute, put together a set of black-and-white photographs culled from the archives of more than seventy industrial and government bodies. Titled Evidence, the collection of puzzling and poetically allusive images—a gloved hand holding a noose, hard-hatted men wading through an ocean of foam—was first shown at SFMOMA in 1977 and is now recognized as an early masterpiece of conceptual photography. (A revival of the original show, titled Evidence Revisited, goes on view at Vassar College in October.)
Sultan has also engaged in numerous public art projects, ranging from printing schoolchildren’s faces and life stories on grocery bags to collaborating on a multimedia installation in a shopping center that used mall merchandising techniques (stacks of slogan-printed T-shirts, larger-than-life photographic banners) to explore the lives and feelings of real people.
He’s perhaps best known for his 1992 Pictures from Home, in which he documented his San Fernando Valley upbringing and his relationship with his parents in photographs, old snapshots, home-movie stills, and text. The blend of tenderness and unsparing observation that he brought to recording his aging mother and father and their comically opulent décor is equally on tap in The Valley, and so is the interplay between his evocative text and the literary density of the photographs.
Sultan was introduced to the world of adult filmmaking in 1998, when a magazine assignment about working on a porn set brought him to a house in the San Fernando Valley just a few doors away from the home of a girl he’d had a crush on as a teenager. Inside, surrounded by photographs of smiling children and other detritus of suburban life, he discovered a pile-up of six naked women. "It was hilarious and weird," he recalled during an interview at SFMOMA shortly after The Valley opened in early May. "It was as if the family had vanished and this strange new family had come in."
He was hooked by the conjunction of the pornographers’ pungent theatrics and what he calls "the mise-en-scene of the suburbs, where the home is so much about theater, about painting this image of family and plenitude, taste and wealth. These pictures are about domestic disorder. What is cozy and homey is made uncanny and unsettled."
A third element allows his project to achieve emotional lift-off: the way the sexualizing of these suburban settings provokes his own nostalgia and memories of adolescent yearning. "For me this is not just theater, but deeply personal," he said, "about a longing for something that, when I was young, I left behind as soon as I could."
Perhaps that’s why Sultan’s pictures have more resonance than many other attempts to harness the sex industry to artistic purposes. In today’s climate of corporate prudishness and tub-thumping hypocrisy, it may also be one reason that The Valley will not be traveling to any other venues.
Last fall Reagan Louie’s Sex Work in Asia, a group of large-format photographs of prostitutes, filled the same SFMOMA gallery where The Valley is currently on view. Louie’s cataloguing of deadpan young women in bedrooms and parlors, with and without clothes, aspired to an August Sander sort of universality, and the exhibition certainly prompted debate about exploitation and the relationship between artist and subject. But the photographs, as photographs, failed to provoke much beyond mild prurient curiosity, and the cumulative effect was repetitive and a tad sordid.
Where Sex Work in Asia seemed to hold its subjects at arm’s length, if not at the end of the proverbial ten-foot pole, The Valley embraces its people and places. For Sultan, reaching that level of personal engagement was not easy. After pursuing the project for several years, and showing a number of the pictures in New York and elsewhere, he had a nagging feeling that the series "wasn’t adding up." His editor at Scalo pinpointed what was missing: Sultan himself. "He was right," Sultan said. "I had been fighting against the element of sexuality; I had purged the flesh. I had erred on the side of being too reticent."
He went back and printed some photographs that he’d earlier felt were too intimate or too scary (including the woman with the scarred nipples) and also took a number of new pictures. One is "Kanin Road," a shot, taken through a gauzy curtain, of a woman astride a reclining man, both of them wearing small black masks, like cartoon bank robbers. The woman leans forward, clutching her partner’s ankles, as a second, clothed man reaches into the frame and tenderly adjusts her mask. The image is creepy (especially when you notice another man beyond the curtain, earnestly watching the action) and yet full of feeling, as well as just plain lovely.
Another photograph that overflows with warmth is a shot of two women relaxing under a backyard arbor next to a table covered with keys, cell phones, and plastic cups. One, with curlers in her hair, is smoking a cigarette; her companion, wearing nothing but a ring in her navel, smiles dreamily into the distance. If "Kanin Road" archly echoes Manet’s "Olympia," this picture evokes Gauguin at his most sensual and celebratory. Everything that the suburbs promise and yet so often fail to deliver—leisure, friendship, happiness, sunshine—is here, at least for a few minutes before the women must go back to work.
The mood of this photograph echoes one of the most moving passages in Sultan’s introductory text, wherein he describes the hunger for intimacy underlying a film depicting an improbably spontaneous suburban orgy. "What could be better?" he writes. "A lazy afternoon in the suburbs with all the time in the world to enjoy the small things and to spend a day in one another’s arms…a day when no one turns away from another, when tentative glances and awkward first moves are met with passionate approval. Everyone is seen, and held, and longed for."
There are also darker images. One shot of a kitchen set in a film studio shows a sinkfull of dirty dishes and a selection of canned goods whose brand names are concealed under strips of electrical tape. The foodstuffs seem to be expressing the shame that the human actors who will shortly inhabit this squalid space don’t feel, or perhaps won’t admit to. A picture of a group of lounge chairs set around a swimming pool, their cushions wildly disarranged, looks like the record of a crime scene.
A particularly elegant photograph shows a beautiful naked woman on a bed getting instructions from the fully clothed and vaguely troll-like director, while off to one side a tattooed Adonis, glistening with sweat, awaits his cue. Around them is the clutter that stamps this as a real bedroom: bottles and knick-knacks on the dresser, a heart-embroidered pillow on a nearby chair, a hope chest at the foot of the bed. On the walls are posters of two famous—and famously staged—depictions of desire, Ruth Orkin’s picture of a woman being ogled in Rome and Robert Doisneau’s Parisian couple engaging in an archetypal French kiss.
The little room fairly thrums with its regular occupants’ eagerness to believe in the transforming power of love, even as the movie makers’ presence reminds us that all too often love is only a charade, or a paycheck. Yet while there’s humor in this juxtaposition, there’s no contempt, either for the people who decorated this cozy bower or for the hard-working folks who have temporarily taken it over. Instead we see them engaged in a shared effort to make dreams come at least momentarily true, to affirm that even though love may not be real, it is nevertheless essential.
Of all the things I love about the photographs in The Valley, this is what I love most: Sultan’s ability to show not only the coarseness of the filmmaking enterprise and the upwardly striving ugliness of the houses, but also their endearing humanity. His pictures are disturbing, witty, gorgeous, but running through them is a ribbon of sweetness.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.