Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I write about pictures as well as take them...
Empty, dark, still: evocative of a sacred space. In this silence ten large-scale
chromogenic prints sing in harmony. Each individual image possesses a distinct voice
and a pervasive color scheme. Each individual image separated by wall and white space,
by light and shadow. But in unison these pictures pose deeply philosophical questions
about place and home. Before knowing the subjects in the photographs are posed migrant
workers, without identifying when in Larry Sultan’s career the pictures were made, the
photographs plead softly: where are we going and from where do we come?
Antioch Creek is one in a group of photographs by Larry Sultan, on view as part
of the exhibition Here at Pier 24 (the title providing a vague and malleable thematic
umbrella). The interior of the site was holy: the photographs treated as religious icons,
the rooms as small shrines. This constructed sense of sanctity in a converted warehouse
was pervasive. Lighting effects and scale undeniably elevated Antioch Creek to the status
of higher being. But these superficial enhancements were unnecessary to underscore the
weighty conceptual ideas and queries at work in Sultan’s photographs.
A man wearing white sits under a blossoming tree. At face value, the scene is
ripe with banality. The image is flat and depth of field is eliminated, forcing and coercing
all subject matter to the front of the photograph. An overwhelming plentitude of petals
emphasizes this attention to surface, creating a texture or fabric-like quality. This kind
of Rococo floral fussiness makes for a pretty picture. Sultan has invariably created
something quite lovely and a superficial reading of the photograph ends here. But upon
wrestling with the image a bit more, which Sultan effectively invites a more patient
viewer to do, an unsettling experience is unearthed.
The man in white is seated, gently clasping his hands together, captured in
a moment of thought and repose. However, the absence of depth in this photograph
visually shoves the figure to the face of the image. The man is seated, but on a strange
incline. His presence in the image is precarious as he is pushed and pulled along multiple
axes. This seemingly docile moment of solitude is subtly charged with anxiety and is
Simultaneously, it is an image of total stasis and pure explosiveness. The tree
blasts petals all over the image, its branches extending beyond the top of the frame of the
image, the blanket of petals rolling out well beyond the bottom. The image attempts to
expand into the viewer’s space, only to be thwarted by the frame. This energy is kinetic
and the movement is only implicit. Ultimately, it is just a still photograph. But Sultan
quietly builds pressure; a deep breath preceding an occurrence, a profoundly pregnant
pause. The pink tones complicate this elusive tension. On first glance, the photograph
is practically darling, the baby blush pink of the blossoms teeters on saccharine. This
warm, comforting palette subverts the sense of displacement of the subject, the oddity of
the image. Yes, a man wearing white sits under a blossoming tree, but whether or not he
should be there is entirely unclear.
His clothing is white and benign. But his skin is not. He nearly blends in to the landscape; another decorative element on the surface of the photograph, but his racial
identity and the aggressive tree actively expel him outward. Visually he and the tree compete for the viewers’ attention, but he is in the submissive position and the tree
dwarfs him in scale. This competition is endless and perpetual. The subject cannot be
expelled from this moment locked in time. So why is he here? Why is he outside of the
home and not in it?
Ethnicity complicates questions of displacement. The man’s race is suggestive of
his status as alien in a geo-political sense, an “other” in a foreign land. Yet the technical
and formal components of the photograph illustrate and visualize the feeling of being in
transition or without home. It seems that Sultan aimed to illicit something more universal.
That the questions he implores us to ask about place cannot be defined by boundaries
drawn on a map, that they are just a means to an end. This incredible equilibrium between
seductive formal qualities and the ambiguous banal content is the dynamic that compels
us to linger. The viewer is incorporated into these visualized moments of limbo, these
staged scenes of the uncanny. Though his lens, Sultan sheds light on what we already
know. But like the man dressed in white, Sultan places us on unstable ground, caught in
pursuit of what we can’t quite recognize or answer, that which dislocates us.