Darren Sylvester, Dear Diary, 2021, digital C-print, 94 1⁄2 × 63".

Darren Sylvester, Dear Diary, 2021, digital C-print, 94 1⁄2 × 63".

Darren Sylvester

Darren Sylvester is renowned for his highly staged and slightly awkward photographs of people surrounded by branded accoutrements—IKEA furniture and Gap clothing, Dunkin’ Donuts and Diet Coke. Commentators frequently compare Sylvester’s work to fashion editorials and advertising campaigns, while viewers describe feeling directly addressed by the works, or even seduced, as by a pop song that seems to have been written specifically for them. Critics have spilled ink trying to decide whether Sylvester’s work is adequately critical of, or collusive with, the capitalist imagery that is so clearly its subject.

Whatever the motivation, Sylvester exploits this ambiguity to create a distance between the subjects of his photographs and their consumerist trappings. His latest solo exhibition, “Shoobie Doobie,” explored this distance by being all stage and no actors—human, commodity, or otherwise. Befitting the show’s title, which conjures the sounds of midcentury doo-wop, where nonsense syllables fill in the harmonies behind the lead vocalist, the new body of work on view here trained its focus on aesthetic support structures.

Sylvester famously shoots only a handful of photographs per year, spending months planning each one meticulously. Those in “Shoobie Doobie” were all shot on medium-format slide film and thematized their analog status by taking stage sets for their subject. God bless therapy (all works 2021) was a photograph, measuring just under six by four feet, of a votive candle floating in heavenly blue sky. The glow of the flame is refracted in the transparent acetate prop that makes the candle appear to hover, while subtle studio lighting reveals the sky to be the work of a professional backdrop painter: Gentle folds drape from the upper-right corner of the unstretched painted canvas; wrinkles texture the bottom half. Dear Diary captured the silhouette of a city skyline against a handpainted, bloodred sunset. The skyscrapers are cut from MDF and backlit by portable lights (we even glimpse an ungainly electrical cable in one place). Lens flare casts a diamond pattern across the surface of the image, shrouding the scene in an atmospheric glow that almost, but not quite, distracts the eye from the exaggerated perspectival depth created by recessive layering of cutout buildings.

Sylvester’s photographs have a sculptural quality because he is equally a sculptor. Triple S Space Rockers was a pair of custom-built plywood rocking-chair lounges whose color schemes derive from a recent line of Balenciaga sneakers. Two freestanding doorways also populated the gallery space. One of them, Transformer, was clad in steel and looked like an airport metal detector repurposed for the set of Doctor Who. Blinking blue neons ushered the viewer through its threshold but offer no substantial transformation. Sleeping Beauty dungeon door was a hand-carved replica of a detail of the castle in the 1959 Disney animated feature. Just a little more than three feet high and detached from its frame and hinges, this door was resolutely ornamental—complementing the neighboring Forest Flats, a photograph of a stage set with jagged stylized trees silhouetted against a menacing sky of bruised violet, olive green, and blushing peach. The proximity of these works suggested an unconvincing spilling-out of the prop from the photograph into the gallery space.

Questions of criticality aside, the more generative paradigm for understanding Sylvester’s work is fandom. Indeed, he once described himself as a “fan-based artist.” Extreme fans, like Sylvester, typically surpass passive consumption to become fully fledged producers—participating in bootleg, remake, or fan-fiction culture. The desire that fuels fandom is always premised on the necessary distance between fan and object of worship, a condition Sylvester makes generative in his work. With its vacant mise-en-scènes, stage doors leading nowhere, and fake backdrops, “Shoobie Doobie” rehearses the fan’s removed perspective while amplifying their most attentive and imaginative impulses.