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Sultan and Mandel
Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, California
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng

Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel, "Oranges on Fire,"1975, chromogenic print, 30 x 40".

Continuing through April 26, 2014

Once subversive, art removed from the gallery or museum and transplanted to the public realm may now be common practice. But in the late 1970s, Bay Area residents were bemused by the slyly humorous billboards of the artist team of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Their enigmatic image of a pair of hands cradling “oranges on fire,” among others, paved the way for later public/private semiotic investigations like Rigo’s murals, “One Tree” and “InnerCity/Home,” and the satirical message art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Sultan/Mandel’s most endearingly perverse and personal work, however, is the 1977 book, “Evidence,” a compilation of incongruous photos depicting what look like amateurish backyard science experiments that the young artists culled from industrial and corporate archives, including NASA’s. A gloved hand holds aloft a coil of rope; a puff of white foam sits on a lab floor before a dark photo backdrop, like a Madonna before a curtain; a shattered apparatus lies on the desert floor just above the conjoined shadows of head, camera and flash reflector.

Accompanying the book’s small black and white photos are large color photos of various billboards on location, unsettling but droll, and a slide show featuring some works and documentary images not included among the prints on display. In one billboard, set amid the hotels of Asbury Park, NJ, a group of 1950s consumers peers behind a curtain into what seems like a heavenly radiance; in another, writhing snakelike neckties seem to erupt from the billboard into the evening sky above Mildred Pierce’s Café; in a third, the Krugersque inscription WE MAKE YOU LIKE US shills for Big Tobacco, above a flash-illuminated playground at night, even if one of the smokers has clearly given in to The Dark Side. For deadpan absurdist humor, rely on Sultan and Mandel, a name (to quote the 1940s radio comedians, Bob and Ray) you have gradually come to trust.

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