Examiner Contributor

Stephanie Syjuco “Black Market”
Through Oct. 1
James Harris Gallery
309A 3rd Ave. S.
Seattle, WA, 98104
Phone: (206) 903-6220
Hours: Wed. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tuesday by appointment

Stephanie Syjuco is excellent in seeing pattern in elusive places and codifying them in deceptively comfortable, but upon closer look, complex symbolic form. She undertakes broad questions of history, design and consumer culture as the source of her work. She works with found objects from technological and consumer mass production. She executes very minimal, but pointed alteration of these objects, provoking ideas and questions as much, or perhaps maybe more than, aesthetic response.

The questions she explores in her exhibit at James Harris Gallery have to do with a longed for recognition of the familiar and native in an exile’s experience of popular culture. Titled “Black Market,” Syjuco reworks images and icons drawn from movies, the Web and from merchandising.

In “Body Double (Platoon),” the 1986 film “Platoon,” which portrayed a young soldier’s experience in Vietnam but was set in the Philippines, is presented in its entirety, but blocked out except for images of vegetation. Rectangles of various shapes framing greenery appear in the positions and in the duration they actually have in the film. There are moments when nothing appears at all. There’s an almost meditative effect in those passages when all I seemed to do, watching it, was to count time until the next green sliver appeared. As presented in the gallery, the sound was turned off, so I had no idea what was happening in the rest of the film.

After a while, the experience became more generic, if a bit confining. The vegetation blurring by remained indistinct. With such fleeting context provided, the location could have been anywhere, and it didn’t seem to matter as much that the setting was the Philippines.

There is the same sense of feeling controlled in a series of altered photographs of Philippine market scenes. The photographs, downloaded from the Web, feature people — sellers and perusing buyers — surrounded by merchandise. The merchandise is obscured by heavy black masking, so that what we see are people carrying on, but burdened by the presence of ominous black shapes in the photographic space.

The photographic enlargements don’t enhance the parts that are left unobscured. On the contrary, the images’ digital bits, with their low-resolution flaws, are magnified. There’s not much illusion left, as the forms of people, their clothes and faces, break up in a matrix of irregularly shaped dots. Like the vegetation in “Body Double (Platoon),” they remain anonymous; with magnification, their emanations become mechanical and reproducible.

The last components of the exhibit are mysterious black clumps laid out on minimalist white shelves. Presumably there is actual merchandise enclosed inside these shapes, but it’s difficult to make out what they might be. The shapes suggest several objects clumped together, or single objects whose original forms are unrecognizably distorted. The shapes are dense, even stunted; the black latex skin has a plasticized feel.

According to the gallery, Syjuco’s original intent was to place the black shapes on a structure that mimics Frank Lloyd Wright’s arguably best-known design, “Falling Water.” The structure would be made with parts of furniture from Ikea, the low-price, mass production retailer. The gallery’s limited size prohibited creating the structure, but in the artist’s original plan, we see the intent to consciously invoke recognition by using a quintessential American architectural icon. In its more reduced format, there’s more of a clinical or science exhibit feel to the layout, and the sense of onyx or black crystal comes through in the merchandise forms, making them seem like specimens.

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