by Lawrence Gipe
There’s a mini-genre of artists interested in “traceability”, a notion in sustainable resource production that focuses on tracking finished products back to their origin. Some of this work reveals the journey our consumer goods and energy sources take; Lucy Raven’s incisive documentation of copper in China Town (2009), and the Bureau of Suspended Objects archive by Jenny Odell (recently at the CJM), are two recent works among many that chronicle the circuitous path of manufacturing. It’s tempting to credit the late Mark Lombardi as the eminence grise, as his flow charts, detailing the cash connections of the one percent set the bar for artistic sleuthing.
Stephanie Syjuco’s work addresses consumer capitalism in a parallel manner, but she greatly expands on the premise — and makes it personal. Not content just to document existing goods and flows, Syjuco prefers to be “CEO” and create the whole production chain herself. Carnegie would’ve blushed at the thoroughness of her vertical monopoly. In earlier works like The Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy) (2006-present), Syjuco created a fake boutique of knock-off designer handbags, each interpreted and crocheted by outside participants contacted online or in workshops led by the artist. The “product line” resulted in hilarious hybrids that made many worthy points about production,
commerce and originality. Counterfeit Crochet is only one of scores of international projects over the past decade that Syjuco has designed to both raise awareness about the pitfalls of our free-market economy and demonstrate the political frisson between contemporary fashion and traditional crafts.
In Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime), her current solo exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery, she continues to engage the world of fashion as a critical model, highlighting how the industry blithely swipes ethnic designs of colonial origin to make its lines “exotic”. She frames the issue using the tropes of ethnographic photography. Borrowing, possibly, from the approach of Albert Honnis and Francisco van Camp (especially from their work in her native Philippines during the mid-to-late 19th century), Syjuco, in her portraits from the Cargo Cults series, places herself in the position of the colonialized “other” in an elaborate commentary that buries the artist under layers of geometric patterning. She heightens the anachronistic effect, and the critique, by costuming herself in present-day “ethnic” fabrics from companies like H&M and the Gap, their price tags visibly dangling. The most effective of these is aptly subtitled Cover Up. Syjuco’s eyes peer out from behind a hajib in a tableau so cluttered with patterns, the artist almost disappears. This black-and-white work, in mimicking its origins, flattens the picture plane, an effect that is further enhanced by the placement of a calibration strip in the piece’s foreground. These strips, used in photography to define accurate tone and color, are employed as a leitmotif (and a pun) in the exhibition, manifest most dramatically in two beautiful wall hangings.
In this exhibition, fans of the artist may miss the revelations that emerge when Syjuco works with the community; obviously, the mercantile nature of a gallery creates a different context than a non-profit environment. The title piece, a giant, low-slung tabletop diorama that dominates the show, presents a wide swath of imagery, some of which speaks to Edward Said’s notion of essentialization as it operates in Western art and Hollywood culture. It’s eye grabbing, but too diffuse in its particulars to reinforce any of the points Syjuco makes elsewhere about cultural “grayness”. It’s also fair to wonder who the target audience is for the video Ornament + Crime (Villa Savoye), an exercise that asks us to connect the conceptual dots between WW1 battleship camouflage, Le Corbusier and “globalization, migration, historical trauma and colonialism” – a tall order for a video of 3-D vector pans. Still, for the uninitiated, Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime) is a fascinating glimpse into the work of a prolific and important Bay Area artist and activist.
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Stephanie Syjuco: “Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime)” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through August 27, 2016.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, writer and associate professor of art at the University of Arizona. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.