Los Angeles

Mitchell Syrop

Kuhlenschmidt/Simon Gallery

Mitchell Syrop likes to refer to himself as “an industrial folk artist.” Combining text and commercial photographic imagery, Syrop exploits the language and marketing techniques of Madison Avenue in order to deconstruct the ideology of “received” information. His usual strategy is to juxtapose an appropriated image with a clichéd slogan or witty pun, so that the imperative voice of official language becomes an agency for semantic closure, dictating how the total “package” should and must be read.

In the past, Syrop has walked a thin line between propagating and debunking such reifying mechanisms. This has allowed him not only to raise a number of Post-Modernist questions about originality and appropriation, but also to lay bare hitherto hidden layers of signification. We became aware that the old “tyranny” of painting, with its almost fetishistic devotion to the aura of self-expression, has been replaced by a new authoritarianism, that of media language systems.

Syrop’s latest exhibit, an installation called “A Plied Art,” pushed these concepts one step further. Syrop revamped the gallery space as a sort of museum shop-public relations presentation. Hand-painted photo murals, decals, imprinted soap, sponges, and bumper stickers were all part of a broad linguistic sales pitch, cleverly blurring any distinction between the merchandising of art and the art of merchandising. For example, gallery owners and artist alike were promoted through business cards advertising “Situational Adjustment Via Linguistic Enhancement.” Semiotics, once primarily the domain of leftist intellectuals, had been transformed into a closed business “empire of signs,” where language, environment, and purchasing power comprised an invidious hierarchy regulated by supply and demand.

Fortunately, Syrop’s system was much more open than it seemed, largely because his modular network of signs appeared to be evolving toward pure idea, where any number of interpretations become possible. Syrop encouraged such a reading by arranging the installation linearly, gradually condensing his visual/textual codes into increasingly smaller compartments until they attained the transcendence of undiluted mind-set. In image-dominated single works such as Be. Have., 1986, for example, the text accompanying the photo mural (in this case a broken cup) acts in several mainly parasitical ways. The play on imperatives might allude to a cause-and-effect “off-screen” narrative, where someone responsible for the breakage is told to “behave.” Yet it also serves as a hard sell for the work as a whole, urging fulfillment of one’s acquisitive desires by purchasing the art object.

In Assume the Position, 1986, however, an interlocking checkerboard of image and text, the semiotic relationships are much more slippery and tenuous. Slogans such as “Press Release,” “Public Relations,” and “Penetrating Coverage” seem completely arbitrary when applied to a vacuum cleaner, a pile of pillows, or a row of filing cabinets. Both visual and written language systems have become crystallized to the point of autonomous inevitability. They are now interchangeable significations in a wider schema, where intrinsic “meaning” is less important than selling the right combination of signs.

Ultimately, however, Syrop seemed to say that received information is always a two-way door, for as art/commerce moves from the realms of object/image toward the vagaries of concept, so it lays itself open to creative misinterpretation. In this respect, the show’s key work was perhaps the simple untitled 1986 juxtaposition of a galaxy alongside a time-delay shot of car headlights on the freeway. Significantly, there was no accompanying text, and Syrop seemed to be testing us, saying, “Here, show me what you’ve learned and supply your own caption.” That we found the task impossible says more for our independence of thought than for the supposedly powerful ideology of commerce that surrounds us. For Syrop, language must always be common property, not the preserve of any one special interest, least of all himself.

Colin Gardner