Two Groundbreaking Billboard Artists Take Advertising to Task

Artsy Editorial
Mar 26, 2014 9:12PM

Rebellious, socially and politically progressive, and genre-bending in equal measure, the history of the West Coast’s art world has firm roots in public art and conceptualism. In San Francisco, Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art opened in 1970, galvanizing a regional movement toward non-object-based, performance, and public artworks. Pay a visit to the city today and you’ll find public installations and outdoor exhibitions by established and lesser-known artists—Andy Goldsworthy, Mark di Suvero, and Ana Teresa Fernandez among them. This fall, San Francisco’s landmark former high security prison, Alcatraz, will become the site for an exhibition of Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei’s work.

An exhibition at San Francisco’s Stephen Wirtz Gallery digs into this history by homing in on a series of subversive billboards created by two of the city’s treasured artists, Mike Mandel and the late Larry Sultan, in the mid-’70s to late ’80s. Displaying documentary images of the collaborative duo’s groundbreaking billboard art, “Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel: Billboards and Evidence” is the first-ever exhibition of these works. Sultan and Mandel, whose individual practices both entailed a conceptual approach to photography, saw in commercial billboard spaces a platform to address a broader audience and a means to subvert one’s expectations of a given context; and in the language of advertising, a fertile subject. Pulling imagery from existing ads, Mandel and Sultan created signs that were deliberately ambiguous, but underpinned with a sharp critique of the advertising industry and its semantic manipulations. “It was important to us that the billboards were anonymous, that they were like moles,” Sultan once said. “They look like ads but they don’t function as ads.”

In the eponymous work We Make You Us, the words are presented as a fragment of a larger partly hidden text, alongside images of four smokers, “each holding the cigarette as an object of pleasure, even sexual fetish,” as Sultan described. The image suggests the lengths that the tobacco and advertising industries will take to sell their products. Also on view in the exhibition are works from the pair’s seminal project Evidence (1977), a book of found photographs pulled from government, scientific, military, and police archives that delves into the clandestine experiments and pseudo-science conducted by institutional bodies behind closed doors. Considered a landmark in post-modern photographic practice, the images in Evidence propose a new role for photographers, one in which framing an image in new contexts is an artistic act in itself—which serves to question the ways in which meaning is produced and point to the nebulous boundaries between document and fiction. Visionary forerunners in the exploration of the media’s love affair with the image, Mandel and Sultan’s work is perhaps as relevant today as it was several decades ago.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel: Billboards and Evidence” is on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery March 6–April 12, 2014.

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Artsy Editorial