SAN FRANCISCO — Stephanie Syjuco’s exhibition Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime) at Catharine Clark Gallery is physically dominated by an installation of the same name. The crowded platform is host to chipboard cut-outs of reference-rich images: a pixelated, life-size version of Freud’s couch and chair, groupings of fruits and vegetables, plants, African masks and sculptures, paper Persian rugs, and a woman reclining on a Le Corbusier chair. The concepts packed into this purposefully cluttered installation are not immediately obvious, but stand out more clearly when considered in light of the other works on view.
“Ornament + Crime (Villa Savoye)” (2013), a video work tucked in a back room, examines patterns as culturally loaded symbols — a useful starting point for Syjuco’s art. The video moves through and around a digital rendering of Villa Savoye, architect Le Corbusier’s iconic modernist building. However, its surface is decorated with a form of dazzle camouflage, a World War I tactic of using bold black-and-white patterns on battleships to thwart opponents’ abilities to estimate direction and speed. Syjuco’s dazzle patterns are derived from Moroccan, Vietnamese, and Algerian textiles — pointedly, all ex-colonies of France. Applied in this way, the patterns function as a defense tactic from a postcolonial perspective: Syjuco disrupts the presumed cultural neutrality of modernism (with its clean, sleek lines and penchant for geometry) by reminding us of white European colonial histories.
Audio files play street noise — voices, drumming, singing, car sounds — from each of these countries throughout the video. The real-life sounds of these countries paired with their local patterns are a counterpoint to Syjuco’s photographs in the front gallery. For “Cargo Cults” (2016), she made a series of pseudo-ethnographic studio self-portraits where she dresses in “ethnic” prints from a generic “exotic” culture. The clothes, manufactured by the likes of the Gap and H&M, still have their tags on (she returned all of what she wore) and illustrate the commodification of cultural appropriation.
With the concepts of empire and economy in mind, the chaotic “Neutral Calibration (Ornament + Crime)” (2016) installation now offers more approachable access points. In revisiting it, what stands out most prominently is the photographic reference imagery used for calibrating printing and computer monitors. The installation alludes to visual documents — random photographic portraits, still lifes of fruits and plants, arbitrary miscellaneous props — shared online to calibrate computer monitors to a “neutral” standardized color schema. Jam-packed together, these images presumably showcase the most color variation possible, and are always shown alongside rainbow or gray color scales, which Syjuco includes in her installation.
The clutter of “Neutral Calibration (Ornament + Crime)” mirrors the frenzied composition common to these compiled visuals or guides — especially the images of women, similarly used as “props” in reference materials. The women models in Syjuco’s installation also harken back to “Shirley cards,” which were Kodak’s color correction guides for professional printings since the 1950s. “Shirley” was almost always a white woman, her skin color used to calibrate “correct” printing — until the 1990s, color film was largely designed to best represent white skin (Vox.com has an excellent five-minute video on this history). Now, the models used for computer calibration are of varying skin colors, as seen in the chipboard cut-outs Syjuco includes in the installation (all images are available open-source online). However, one reference image shows three women all wearing stereotypical costumes to “match” their respective ethnicities. This gesture of multicultural inclusivity is belied by the perpetuation of a white male gaze — a mere continuation of the Shirley card.
The color guides here become repeated visual tropes, or patterns. These materials are not objective, even though they often are perceived to be due to their status as technical materials. Rather, they are part of a history of photographic technical materials, now converted to digital, that has consistently prioritized a racialized white point of view that pretends to be universal. This is in stark contrast to the appropriation of patterns from other cultures, which are ethnically marked as “other,” and thus exploited as exotic — appropriated without specificity, permission, or credits to the persons and communities from which they were derived. Syjuco’s work effectively showcases these double standards ingrained into seemingly everyday prints and patterns. There is nothing neutral here.
Stephanie Syjuco: Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime) continues at Catharine Clark Gallery (248 Utah St, San Francisco) through August 27.