Stephanie Syjuco: Latent Images @Ryan Lee

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 color photographs, framed in brown wood/white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. All of the works are archival pigment inkjet prints, made in 2021. The works are generally divided into large and small sizes, with the large prints ranging in size from roughly 39×56 to 41×61 inches (or the reverse) and the small prints sized at 15×20 inches. All of the prints are available in editions of 5. The show also includes an installation of large format inkjet prints and taped-together color laserjet prints arranged on wooden platforms, with stone blocks, from 2021-ongoing. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: As more and more photographers are diving into archival sources of imagery, one of the realities they are discovering is that archives, almost by definition, aren’t neutral. As much as we might like to think that the historical photographs found in museums, libraries, universities, and other institutions of storage and preservation are simply gathered there without bias, the truth is that the making of choices (of what to keep, what to value, what to omit, what to save, and what to discard) brings with it a whole host of implied vantage points and subjective perspectives, many of which reflect the social and political beliefs of the people who made the decisions and the times in which those decisions were made. The narratives and stories that then emerge (and the way the resulting images are further framed and presented) are infused with those embedded choices, becoming a surprisingly powerful cultural force.

In recent years, Stephanie Syjuco has been doing research at the archives of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, exploring both the archive’s early 20th-century depictions of the Philippines (where the artist was born), as well as its broader holdings of imagery related to the growth and development of America. Artistically, she has set herself an audaciously difficult challenge – how to “talk back” to these archives, and to re-interpret (or “re-narrate”) the images and materials included in the collections. In a sense, she has to not only sift and sort through all the available photographs, but then try to understand the invisible decisions that were made that led to their particular preservation, and ultimately, to rethink how the images can be presented in ways that might allow or encourage some thoughtful (or even radical) re-interpretation.

Along the way, Syjuco has developed a variety of different aesthetic techniques for either interrupting or re-imagining archival materials, slowly building up a toolbox of methods that she can deploy in different circumstances and going beyond the straightforward object portraiture of artists like Terry Evans or Miyako Ishiuchi (who have similarly investigated different resonant archives). In this show, most of the photographs on view started with a straightforward documentary photograph of an original archival photo. Syjuco then enlarged the images, divided them into tiles, and printed them on standard 8.5 x11 inch office paper, which she then reassembled using tape. The resulting image printouts were then rephotographed by Syjuco, essentially documenting the end state of her reworking process.

She has applied this re-seeing approach to a handful of archival finds, and in each case, her process of re-evaluation forces us as viewers to consider the invisible context of the selected image object. She shows us a box of photographs of Filipino women in native dress, highlighting the colonial mindset often applied when documenting non-White cultural traditions. She offers a box of “rejects” by Henry Clay Anderson, a mid-20th century Black photographer from Mississippi, asking us to consider who the rejecters were and why the unseen images in the box weren’t selected. She photographs the backs of a pile of KKK material from the 1950s, not allowing her own image to further amplify what was saved. And she shows us a damaged slide from a poverty lecture from the 1920s called “Better America”, encouraging us to guess at what was originally depicted and imagine what it might tell us now a century later. Instead of taking each archival image at face value, she has broken it down and pieced it back together, thereby deconstructing both the image itself and its hidden history.

In the back room, Syjuco has gathered together a group of images of photographic color calibration charts, along with a pair of works that include a calibration strip along the top. Artists have long been intrigued by the blocks of colors in these tools, pushing them toward all-over abstraction (like Gerhard Richter), isolating them as artifacts (like Anne Collier), or using them in still lifes as a reminder of how they were largely designed to calibrate the color of White skin (like Awol Erizku). Syjuco’s charts are variously bunched and crumpled, as though discarded in a fit of frustration, their presumed fidelity actually broken and outdated. This idea comes through even more strongly in two prints of tropical fruits (alternately categorized as “occidental” and “oriental”, from c1900), where the colors have been inverted, perhaps in an effort to reverse the Asian stereotypes that came along with those fruits.

In the center of the gallery, Syjuco has installed a sprawling physical representation of her ongoing work in the archives. On an interconnected gathering of wooden platforms, she has placed a range of photographic prints, some depicting an object or an image she has discovered, or a layering of images atop one another in loose piles. We see her gloved hand holding prints (and in some cases, deliberately interrupting those images, almost like an eclipse, which is depicted nearby), prints of various sizes measured by rulers and color bars, Photoshop transparency grids (referencing the manipulation of history), pixelated photographs (that again frustrate our ability to read them legibly), and both fronts and backs of images.

What emerges is a kind of stream of consciousness counter-narrative, where artifacts referencing America’s colonial expansion in the Philippines (in the early 1900s) are intermingled with other remnants of American history, including documents from Japanese interment schools and images of Black buffalo soldiers. While it’s hard to take in the significance and resonance of each of the component parts individually, or decode each and every juxtaposition, Syjuco feels very much present in this version of the archive, like a witness of interpreter, who is there to provide a heretofore unrecognized context or background on the objects we are seeing. What she has shown us is a process of selection, rearrangement, and re-thinking, where the assumptions of old that inhabit the material are actively called into question, making the resulting artifacts look that much more strange or tainted (particularly a brightly colored photograph of three women of different races in traditional dress with their instruments). The narrative she has constructed urges us to be observantly skeptical, asking the questions about each object and image that lie dormant in its surroundings.

When you recalibrate your mind to be inherently mistrustful of these objects, the braininess of Syjuco’s approach shines through, and in this way, simplicity gives way to complexity and contradiction. This is a thoughtfully nuanced show, where everything isn’t exactly what it seems, and this very instability is, in the end, Syjuco’s subject. In the process of excavating these archives, she’s transformed the idea and definition of such a place, from a dusty repository of received (and unquestioned) truths to a place where most everything is up for re-examination and re-interpretation. That’s actually an energizing, perceptive, and unexpectedly risky place to start, which makes the artworks she has produced all the more provocative and challenging.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced based on size, with the larger prints at $18000 each and the smaller prints at $7500 each. Syjuco’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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