Exposing domestic comfort

The art of today is probably too diverse to classify according to the country in which it originates and the world too globalized to allow for such clear distinctions. Still, though there may be no set of characteristics readily recognizable as belonging to «American,» «British» or «Balkan» contemporary art, one may perhaps trace certain traits or even a general «energy» in art work that betrays an artist’s ethnic origin. The steadiness and almost moving preoccupation with which American artists have addressed the «American dream,» whether openly or more indirectly, is probably one such example. The American dream, the trappings of middle-class, West Coast suburbia and the deceptive comforts of domesticity are recurring issues in Larry Sultan’s photography since the late 1970s when this well-known photographer first emerged, rising in reputation since then. In his photographic series «The Valley,» a blend of documentary and staged photography, Sultan takes pictures from real-life pornographic movie sets, which curiously enough, are all middle-class homes rented out for the purpose to the pornographic movie industry. A selection of those images are on view at Sultan’s solo exhibition at The Apartment gallery in Athens, which runs in parallel with an exhibition on Sultan’s same body of work being held at San Francisco’s MoMA (the supplementary catalogue is available at The Apartment gallery). Currently, Sultan’s work is also featured in the group exhibition «Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990» at New York’s MoMA and touring in the US exhibition «Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art.» Sultan’s images allude to the covert similarities between two worlds generally considered to be far apart. They reveal the artificial side, the melancholy, suffocating existence and kitsch aesthetics surrounding both suburban life and the world of pornography. In both of its manifestations, it is a sad world to look at, in which the blandness of ordinary middle-class life becomes a trap quite similar to that of the subculture. How far away are the coziness and moral values of suburban domesticity from the artificial, tacky world of pornography? Sultan’s work poses the question. It does so with humor yet a melancholy subtext, with sympathy yet unrelentingly and in a way that, overall, is more distanced than emotionally involved. In a way, Sultan exposes the failure and hypocrisy of the American dream and in several pictures he does so with beautiful use of luscious light and colors. But somehow, his images fall prey to the very banality that they address, for one is left with a rather blank feeling and a vague wish to see a certain magic, perhaps even elegance, appear more often in contemporary art. Larry Sultan’s «The Valley,» at The Apartment (21 Voulis, Syntagma, tel 210.321.5469) through Saturday.