Critics’ Picks

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, We Make You Us, 1985, C-print, 35 x 42”.

San Francisco

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel

Wirtz Art
5863 Chabot Road
March 6–April 12

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel grew up a few miles from each other in the San Fernando Valley, just east of Los Angeles, but didn’t meet until 1973 when both men were graduate students at the San Francisco Art Institute. Sensing a shared interest in vernacular imagery and social practice (Sultan had briefly been a social worker; Mandel had aspirations to be a lawyer), the young artists began collaborating and would go on to create twenty-five projects together over the next twenty-seven years.

For their lesser-known project Billboards, 1973–89, the artists secured a series of billboards around California and, eventually, throughout the United States. Appropriating the visual and textual language of advertisements, Sultan and Mandel created oblique, absurdist messages that depicted, among other things, ties flying through the air, oranges on fire, and a nuclear explosion. Included in the exhibition “We Make You Us” are a series of eight large-scale printed photographs of these billboards and a lone surviving panel from 1985—a close-up of a man’s face, receding into darkness. The original image, now faded and torn, stands in haunting opposition to the crisp, color photographs that surround it.

For Evidence, 1977, the duo culled fifty-nine black-and-white photographs, twenty-seven of which are in this show, from two million images from over eighty government agencies. Without captions or explanations, the artists have exhibited and published the found photographs. They depict, among other things, an anonymous man hooked up to wires, a rope being held out like a noose by a gloved hand, and construction workers wading through a sea of foam. The sum on display is elusive. By divorcing content from context, Sultan and Mandel’s clever and profound work consistently refuses conclusion and enables the promise of uncertainty.