Los Angeles

Mitchell Syrop

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Mitchell Syrop’s gargantuan installation of approximately 900 high-school-yearbook photos possessed a peculiar subtlety. The aluminum supports, which Syrop calls “extrusions,” and the gridlike stacking of rectangular images lent this work an industrial, living-on-top-of-eachother, cell-block quality. Blown up via laser printing to 8 1/2 by 11 inches, the photographs were assembled into ten separate male and female Caucasian “constellations” of 500, 300, 24, 12, etc., ranging in size from 14 by 27 feet to 24 by 35 inches.

Though these photographs reeked of institutional control—as in a roll call, everyone must be accounted for—Syrop tinkered with the student body to construct a strange white world with many loaded gaps. While the enormous size of RFG Main Group—Male, 1974–92, and RFG Main Group—Female, 1988–92, made them “museum scale” pieces, the works evoked a stadium or a prison camp more than an art museum. In investigating the faces one ventured down a horrific path not unlike that followed by a Nazi doctor in pursuit of genetic typing. There were pockets that read like a European map with boundaries and empty spaces: a trio of Scandinavians impinging on an Italian cluster, adjacent to a German and Polish block.

The photographs were hung in aluminum “extrusions” with monofilament line. Eight smaller cages bore some resemblance to Murphy-bed frames, and it seemed reasonable to imagine these pictures existing upside down, facing the floor,or squeezed against a box spring. The monofilament served as a kind of clothes line on which photographs were hung from hooks, making it possible to rearrange them. Like a crossword puzzle, each “constellation” could be read horizontally and vertically for different effects. By inviting the viewer to project his or her own scenario, the work played on the difficulty of determining where projection ended and the movements and rhythms—which made this piece in some respects into a giant abstract painting—began. One assumed the blank spaces in the grid were for missing or deceased students, or that they marked an appropriate spot for one’s own mug. The heart of Syrop’s efforts were the microdetails of likeness and difference, where a rhythm or pattern was eerily generated—as if there were such a thing as facial syntax, in which meaning is produced as lips, eyes, eye-liner, tear ducts, hairdos, mustaches, cleft chins, square jaws, and sideburns collide and mutate. In the end it all came down to two faces, any two you wanted to pair up. There were pairings that brought out such astonishing differences that one face seemed amphibious, the other reptilian. And there were likenesses so profound it was disconcerting. A palpable tension was generated by the push-pull between connections that ran from face to face, and the physical squared-off separation of each photograph. There was always something very much askew in these walls of faces.

In one sense incredibly ridiculous, these photographs could also be read on purely comic terms: men and women posing for a camera, trying to project some sort of beauty, or sensitivity, or intelligence, or toughness. That yearbook pictures often resurface in the world on parents’ mantels, in obituaries, or in missing-persons files lent them a certain deadness and pitiful quality: images of students frozen at 18 years old, the shadows of parents lurking beneath their pores, bewildered by sexual compulsions and an indeterminate future. Syrop’s constellation of faces turned everyone into a monster, or screwed up your idea of handsomeness to the point where such a standard no longer made any sense. Even the standard attractive face read like an abstract sign, the top fifth of the human arrangement of meat.

Benjamin Weissman