PRINT November 2019


Stephanie Syjuco, Cargo Cults: Java Bunny, 2016, ink-jet print, 40 × 30". From the series “Cargo Cults,” 2016.

THE 2016 United States presidential election coincided with a surge in threats against vulnerable communities—an FBI report cited a nearly 20 percent increase in hate crimes the following year. The sharpest increases were in incidents related to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. One dominant explanation has narrativized a comfortable, fictional “before” and “after,” a troubling, liberal iteration of “make America great again.” But an alternative analysis is far more convincing: The events of the past few years did not represent a startling shift but rather a doubling down on that Western bedrock: white supremacy.

Stephanie Syjuco, Applicant Photos (Migrants #3) (detail), 2013–17, ink-jet print, 20 × 16". From the series “Applicant Photos (Migrants),” 2013–17.

The San Francisco–based artist Stephanie Syjuco has been setting the stage for the latter argument for more than two decades, tracking the indissociable effects of empire and capitalism with particular attention to the violence underpinning who does and doesn’t get counted as a citizen. “Rogue States,” the largest presentation of her work to date, is currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. The city’s proximity to Ferguson, Missouri—the site of the 2014 murder of Michael Brown, which catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement—has ushered in an especially acute reflection on the role of institutions in perpetuating racist ideologies. (The museum itself has been forced to reconsider its positions in the wake of protests related to its 2016 Kelley Walker exhibition, which was deemed offensive to the black community.)

Stephanie Syjuco, Block Out the Sun (detail), 2019, thirty ink-jet prints mounted on aluminum, wooden risers, display case, each print 8 × 10“, overall work 96 × 48 × 36”.

In preparation for the show, Syjuco spent two weeks at the Missouri Historical Society researching the 1904 World’s Fair, specifically material related to the Philippine Village, one of the exposition’s “human zoos.” The result is Block Out the Sun, 2019, a vitrine containing snapshots of the artist’s hands covering the Filipino subjects in the archival photos. The photos themselves are artlessly earnestand were printed, mounted, and displayed flat, occasionally overlapping with other pictures. The presence of Syjuco’s hands makes the pictures seem tender while also complicating them, not only suggesting an effort to protect the photographed subjects from an external gaze and to disrupt the continued circulation and reproduction of problematic imagery, but also asserting the artist’s subjectivity. When Syjuco was just three years old, she and her mother emigrated from Manila to the United States, and at age twenty-six she became an American citizen. Her roots are deeply bound up with the complex social relations represented in the archives, and the entanglement helps her bridge the historical divide between her present and the archive’s past while destabilizing the objectification of the photographs’ subjects.

Other works in the exhibition retain a regional resonance while speaking to larger, national narratives, including that of the United States’ involvement with the Philippines. To the Person Sitting in Darkness, 2019, takes as its starting point a 1901 essay by Mark Twain, a Saint Louis darling, in which he satirizes the missionary zeal behind the American occupation of the Philippines and proposes a new American flag in which the stars are replaced by crossbones and the white stripes are made black. Syjuco’s oversize rendition of this flag hangs on a pole in the museum’s courtyard. When slack, it feels less irreverent than mournful: One hundred years after Twain’s critique, colonial subjugation remains the norm.

Syjuco’s disparate images and objects form a darkly absurd still life of our culture’s psycho-political unconscious.

Visible from the courtyard where Twain’s flag waves is the exhibition’s titular work, Rogue States, 2018, an assemblage of twenty-two flags hung vertically, United Nations style, from the ceiling of the museum. Their designs are copied from flags in blockbuster American and European movies such as Die Hard 2 (1990), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Coming to America (1988), in which they represent fictional “enemy nations”—i.e., non-Western countries—that threaten or trouble the Western heroes. Although the show’s title refers to these imagined nations, Syjuco’s primary assertion is that the United States itself is a rogue state, buoyed by myths of itself as, for example, a beneficent melting pot, creating equality while boiling away difference. As Syjuco attempts to uncover the pervasiveness of American neocolonialism and to recover the suppressed histories of disempowered others, she also suggests that postmodern imagery—which, in its mass proliferation, has supposedly desensitized us to the specific meanings of images and rendered them all equally, emptily significant—can in fact reinforce oppressive narratives. Walker’s exhibition at the museum was premised on the image’s disconnect from signification or reality, but his work had disturbing and specific meaning for local audiences. Syjuco’s work suggests that the postmodernists were gravely wrong (or perhaps that their theses were clouded by a white-supremacist lens): Images can still have a profound impact, not only offending but also endangering certain populations.

Stephanie Syjuco, Dodge and Burn (Visible Storage), 2019, wooden platform, seamless paper, digital adhesive prints on wood, dye-sublimation prints on fabric, mixed media. Installation view, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Photo: Dusty Kessler.

The main gallery is consumed by two large-scale works on stagelike wooden platforms. Dodge and Burn (Visible Storage), 2019, and Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime), 2016, contain hundreds of objects and printed images thereof, sourced from the internet and turned into props, their backs spray-painted “neutral” gray, laying bare their artificiality. They range from ads for balaclavas to a chair from Sigmund Freud’s Vienna study to one of the most common images (of a Swedish model named Lena Söderberg) used to test resolution in the jpeg format, alongside emoji, hand-stitched historical-reenactment costumes, a picture of Black Panther Huey Newton in a traditional Filipino rattan chair, and MAGA-style ball caps. Together, these disparate images and objects form a darkly absurd still life of our culture’s psycho-political unconscious, in which riot gear, historic ephemera, and assorted “exotica” can overlap and be recombined ad infinitum to serve any meme or dominant narrative. The phrase neutral calibration studies is from the title of modernist architect Adolf Loos’s 1910 screed against “ornamentation” in functional objects; he ties the decorative impulse to a kind of primitivism and “uncivilized” immorality. His examples include Papuan tattoos. “No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level,” he writes. “Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.” The maximalist decorative impulse of Syjuco’s installations therefore heightens the critique of Western ideologies that the images themselves suggest.

Stephanie Syjuco, Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime) (detail), 2016, wooden platform, seamless  paper, digital adhesive prints on wood, dye-sublimation prints on fabric, items purchased on eBay and Craigslist, ink-jet prints, artificial plants, live plants, paint. Installation view, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2019. Photo: Dusty Kessler.

Syjuco wrests deep political resonances from these sources. Photoshop is prevalent—the software’s gray-checkered “transparency” layer, color-correction charts, and “dodge and burn” tools make appearances, inserted or applied to underscore the affected object or imagery’s artificiality. She reminds us that the digital is not intangible but is highly capable of inflicting violence. Protesters or undocumented persons can be identified in widely circulated photographs. Police can digitally remove a suspect’s tattoos for a lineup. Syjuco’s deft play with such tools is perhaps most successful in her employment of chroma-key green, a color typically used in film and television as a background to be substituted with other imagery, rendering certain objects “invisible” or secondary to an overlaid image. In Syjuco’s work, both the Photoshop transparency layer and the chroma-key green function as metaphors for white supremacy, an “invisible” force that erases or overwhelms aspects of culture by superimposition.

Three photographic series further extend her use of “neutralizing” gray and mechanisms of invisibility. “Cargo Cults” and “Neutral Orchids,” both 2016, and “Applicant Photos (Migrants),” 2013–17, are displayed in the gallery adjacent to her large-scale still lifes. In “Cargo Cults,” the artist is portrayed dressed in “ethnic” clothing culled from popular franchises such as H&M and Forever 21; razzle-dazzle fabrics form a backdrop of similar patterns into which Syjuco further disappears. These portraits are formally staged to resemble nineteenth-century ethnographic photographs, thereby calling out (and also, arguably, perpetuating) the racism of both the designs and this documentary trope. In the artist’s pictures, price tags for the clothing are visible and the images digitally overlaid with gray-scale color charts; both elements challenge viewers who initially read the images as “authentic,” i.e., belonging to a certain time, place, and ideological position. “Neutral Orchids” depicts orchids covered in gray paint against a gray background. The paint will eventually kill the orchids; the series functions as an allegory for the violent erasures endemic to cultural assimilation. “Applicant Photos (Migrants)” consists of grids of passport-style black-and-white portraits in which the subject’s face is wrapped in the same types of cloth that appear in “Cargo Cults,” here forming a disguise that negates the usual identifying function of such images.

Stephanie Syjuco, Total Transparency Filter (Portrait of N), 2017, ink-jet print, 40 × 30".

A stand-alone piece at one of the exhibition’s exit points, Total Transparency Filter (Portrait of N), 2017, depicts a figure draped in a cloth printed in the Photoshop transparency layer’s gray-checkered pattern. The sitter whose identity is obscured is in fact one of Syjuco’s former students, an undocumented person whose college education had been funded by the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but whose citizenship is now precarious. The photograph was previously exhibited alongside a larger body of work titled “CITIZENS,” 2017, which included additional pictures of individuals from at-risk populations, namely immigrants, refugees, people of color, and LGBTQ persons—all shrouded by the same cloak of white supremacy. Integral to “CITIZENS,” but not included in the CAM exhibition, is a twenty-foot black banner with white letters spelling out I AM AN AMERICAN; the banner is gathered at the end to obscure the word American. The work was inspired by a 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph that depicts the facade of a business owned by a Japanese American named Tatsuro Matsuda in Oakland, California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, he draped a banner emblazoned with this phrase over his storefront. He was ultimately taken to an internment camp.

Stephanie Syjuco, Neutral Orchids (Phalaenopsis + Dracena sanderiana), 2016, ink-jet print,  32 × 24". From the series “Neutral Orchids,” 2016.

Drapery has long figured in classical painting as a means of demonstrating an artist’s technical skills and a marker of a sitter’s wealth and importance. Here, in a perverse adaptation of this tradition, Syjuco uses the same device—the cloak, the covering—to honor her subjects, without pretending that her pictorial attention will protect them. Behind the drapery and filtering masks, the same loaded cultural objects and vilified people remain, stuck in the liminal space of a vitrine, a stage set, a storefront, a “living exhibit.” The violence of this precarity is overwhelming. 

“Stephanie Syjuco: Rogue States” is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis through December 29.

Jessica Baran is a writer and the director of curatorial and program development at Barrett Barrera Projects in Saint Louis.