In his most recent San Francisco exhibition, at the cozy Little Tree Gallery in the Mission, Tim Sullivan managed to reanimate the late blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Mind you, he did it with a low-tech visual effect — a full-color glossy of the actress attached to a flat-screen monitor, a shifting blue sky visible through little almond-shaped slits in the eyes of the photograph. But the mixture of sublime pop (the elaborate media construct of Mansfield) with an almost metaphysical art reference is a key movement in Sullivan's appealing photography, video, and sculpture. His work is an enticing combination of funky but effective tricks, sophisticated references, and an appreciation of comedic white-trash aesthetics.
Sullivan's work often contains gracious nods to other artists. He's made a hilariously perverse video-sculpture homage to Bruce Nauman's mid-1960s Self-Portrait as a Fountain and devoted an entire exhibition at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery to the influential Dutch-born conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who toyed with a sad-sack persona and disappeared mysteriously while attempting to cross the Atlantic alone in a 13-foot boat. Sullivan, a striking figure with pale blond hair and dark horn-rim glasses, often appears in his own work, using self-portraiture to tangentially channel his artistic forebears. While there may be something postmodern about this strategy, you don't have to know about contemporary art history to be captivated by his visual magic. For instance, you need only know about the 1960s-style power of Herb Alpert to appreciate Sullivan's remake of the classic Whipped Cream and Other Delights album cover. Sullivan plays the babe, slathered in foam.
He's also made a life-size horizontal photograph of himself seemingly levitating just above the floor against a backdrop of fabulously chintzy flecked wallpaper. It's in lush color — the artist wears a crimson T-shirt, a color he favors, perhaps for its theatricality. The image appears at a key spot in an opening gallery in the California Biennial, a timely survey of 31 West Coast artists organized by the Orange County Museum of Art (through Dec. 31), and it's had the effect of giving Sullivan, a San Francisco Art Institute grad, wider recognition — he reports that he sold out an edition of the photograph, and he doesn't even have gallery representation. He was singled out in the Los Angeles Times' review of the show, which dubbed him a purveyor of high-spirited "do-it-yourself special effects art."
The OC show also includes a hilarious video called Magic Carpet Ride, a piece made at a Fisherman's Wharf souvenir stand. In it Sullivan and his former teacher, the filmmaker (and Goldie Lifetime Achievement winner) George Kuchar, cavort on a roller coaster gondola. The pair exude goofball charm as they whiz over the Golden Gate Bridge past friendly drag queens. Kuchar is an instructive reference, as Sullivan also seems to dream in Technicolor. They also collaborated on a theatricalized reenactment of Chris Burden's Shoot, the politicized 1971 gallery performance in which the Southern California conceptualist artist was shot in the arm with a pistol. The Sullivan-Kuchar version is set against an amber-hued commercial photomural of a tropical sunset. As a child of the Midwest, Sullivan expresses a continuing appreciation for and bemusement with the California dream. In another recent piece, he's made fluorescent matchbooks emblazoned with regionally significant incendiary song titles, "California Dreaming" and "Running with the Devil" among them. This guy's on fire. (Glen Helfand)