Until President Barack Obama signed legislation last month that eliminated "Oriental," "Eskimo," "Negro," and other outdated terms as references in written federal laws, the U.S. government effectively sanctioned those terms for public use. These vestiges of racist colonial-era mores remained in official American documents, and their elimination is yet another step that Western leaders have taken in recent decades to help purge their cultures of antiquated prejudices. Of course, variations of these views thrive in other more subtle ways — as artist Stephanie Syjuco suggests in her new San Francisco exhibit, "Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime)."
Language is one thing; objects are another. If someone is selling an "ethnic" carpet on eBay or offering a photograph of an "exotic" woman clothed in "traditional" garb, aren't they really resorting to the same outdated notions that existed in the 18th century? Syjuco is being ironic — and a bit postmodern (and post-colonial) — by incorporating a title that cites its own neutrality. In fact, Syjuco's exhibit is an invitation to scrutinize the ongoing habits of popular, consumer culture.
As art-goers walk into the first room of Catharine Clark Gallery, they're greeted by a series of Turkish, Afghan, and Pakistani carpets — ones that have been seemingly bleached of color. They aren't really carpets, either; they're synthetic fabrics imprinted using dye-sublimation. Next to them are large black-and-white photographs of women posed in print patterns from what could be Africa or Asia. Like the carpets, the images are devoid of any hue. Look closely, and each photo has a color-calibration chart that implies the images are from a kind of modern ethnographic study. These nameless women have been posed, or calibrated, in the same way a photographer would situate a studied insect or animal. Or is there something more going on here?
Yes, says Syjuco, who also references the work of two Malians, Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, who in the 1950s — at a time when geographical colonialism was still in effect — emerged as two of Africa's greatest homegrown photographers. Instead of publications like National Geographic dispatching non-Africans to take pictures of Africans for the enjoyment of other non-Africans, these were Africans taking their own images.
"It's a bit of a double-edged sword, my portraits," says Syjuco, who was born in the Philippines and raised in the Bay Area, and is now an assistant professor in sculpture at UC Berkeley. "There's an amount of play in them, because I'm fictionalizing what I'm considering these almost Filipino tribes. There's playfulness, but also a nod toward ethnographic portraiture and a more institutionalized way of looking at culture."
The gallery's multimedia room features Syjuco's 22-minute, 3D-animated work in which she wraps Villa Savoye — Le Corbusier's famous 1930s French building — in camouflage style, using layers of patterns from three of France's former colonies: Morocco, Algeria, and Vietnam. All the while, we hear sounds of people from those countries — recordings of everyday (publicly sourced) scenes that Syjuco found in her research.
"It's kind of these invisible societies that aren't depicted in the video," says Syjuco, who won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 2014. "They're like ghosts, or the hidden 'other,' or the hidden colonial society, that helped fuel the creation of this modern, Western society. Le Corbusier's building was supposed to represent progress and the modern ideal, and it was built around the same time that colonialism existed."
Syjuco's own story is geographically and culturally complicated. Growing up, she used other people's images to imagine what the Philippines were like. She knows how images can easily sway perception.
"My family migrated to the U.S. when I was 3 or 4, and I grew up mostly in the Filipino-American community. What's interesting about first-generation American children is that they usually have a fantasy about where they came from," she says. "You're removed from what's considered a homeland, and you're piecing it together and constructing it. There's an amount of fictionalization that goes with that, even for someone who claims to be of that identity."
On some level, then, the fictionalized women in Syjuco's photographs are a proxy for Syjuco herself. She's imposing a "make-believe" atmosphere onto her subjects that seems familiar and strange at the same time. Parsing out these competing elements gives each object in "Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime)" its power to engage an art-goer.
What Scooter LaForge does with different paints is the same thing that Louis CK does with different words: assemble them in a funny, often dark way to bring people to raucous laughter. And to tell the truth, it's both. In LaForge's In Trouble, a grown-up cat on a chair is raising a hand to the backside of a little cat, in front of a TV set that's airing what appears to be a Mickey Mouse episode. The mouse is smiling; the grown-up cat is not. Without words, LaForge conveys a scene of pathos and black humor. Of course, no one has ever seen a cat going over the edge like In Trouble, but its absurdity, and LaForge's painting style, which uses vibrant colors and out-of-whack figures, is what brings the painting to an acerbically high state.
In Trouble is one of the featured pieces in "Scooter LaForge: Invitation to Nothingness" at San Francisco's 111 Minna Gallery. There's also Rembrandt Punches Brutus, where LaForge imagines the Dutch painter — standing with bulging, Popeye-like arms, and with Popeye's trademark pipe — getting his revenge on the sailor-man's nemesis from the animated TV series. Then there's Anatomy Lesson, where an assemblage of odd figures — including a dressed animal, a goofy clown, and several people wearing the ruff Renaissance collars that marked Rembrandt's day — stand over a naked body that has a kind of sad-clown face. (It looks more like a party than a science class.)
The exhibit's title notwithstanding, LaForge's show isn't about "nothingness." Instead, it's "nothing" in the same way that Seinfeld was about "nothing." Like Seinfeld and Louis CK, LaForge is based in New York, where 8 million people live, and it helps to have a sense of humor amid America's densest metropolitan area, and a place that long ago erased the geographies of its native peoples.