San Francisco-based artist Stephanie Syjuco has a long resume of impressive achievements. Her work has been featured in collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in visual arts in 2018 and was featured in an episode of PBS’s “Art in the Twenty-First Century,” to name a few.
Now, her exhibit “Blind Spot” is on display at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum. One of the largest surveys of her work to date, it represents yet another milestone for the 49-year-old American artist of Filipino descent. It’s on view through July 23, with a few events in the mix, including an artist talk with Syjuco on March 30 and another discussion with Broad assistant curator Rachel Winter in April.
Syjuco’s work is informed by her interest in issues of agency, cultural representation and political history. A concept artist who works with a variety of mediums, from sculpture to photography, she has turned to archives as a source of inspiration for her latest work, uncovering materials she can transform into creative pieces that make a statement about historical perspectives.
You’ll find her work described in big, museum-y terms like “interrogating” and “posing more questions than it answers.” It’s true, the artist works with enormous, often difficult ideas like racism and colonialism. But her art is also wildly witty, bitingly intelligent and visually unforgettable. The concepts work because, at the end of the day, she asks a question everyone can relate to: “How do we tell new narratives and make new stories with what we are given?”
Take, for example, the largest pieces in her show, which features mannequins dressed in colonial wear overseeing a landscape of green-screen fabric and cardboard cutouts of balaclava-clad resistance fighters. Woven artifacts (are they real? Not real?) from a far-off land (How far? Could they be from Target?) are situated among images of vaporwave oscillations. What am I looking at? Whose vision is this? Just when I start to feel a little confused by all this light, color and emotion, I see it: a cardboard cutout of … a poop emoji? I laugh, delighted. Completely disarmed. I’m still confused but no longer embarrassed by my ignorance. I’m opened up, ready for the conversation. The little bits of humor sprinkled into this show are not only generous — they show Syjuco’s deep respect for her audience.
When I bring up the word generosity, Winter doesn’t skip a beat, saying of Syjuco, “One of the reasons it’s been great to work with her is that she’s really invested in students. She’s an educator and understands the different ways audiences interact with her work.”
Syjuco went above and beyond by taking the museum gallery staff on a walkthrough of her exhibition so they could better understand her point of view and how the subject matter relates to this community.
“She didn’t have to do that,” Winter said, “but she’s a very generous person and wonderful to work with.”
Syjuco’s exhibition opens as “Zaha Hadid Design: Untold” ends its run. I ask Winter a clumsy question about representation since the museum has now put up two exhibitions in a row featuring large bodies of work by women of color. It’s awesome, was it on purpose?
“Coming off the 10th anniversary, the MSU Broad Art Museum is thinking a lot about what the museum is and whom it serves,” Winter said. “We’re interested in highlighting voices that have been underrepresented in certain conversations, but we’re not going down a checklist based on identities. We’re thinking holistically about the museum and our collections.”
One byproduct of this new approach: In the past year, 100% of works purchased by the museum were created by artists of color.
“We’re putting our resources into acquiring work by these artists,” Winter said.
In “Blind Spot,” Syjuco has reproduced and digitally altered 19th- and 20th-century ethnographic photographs by anthropologists, using the Healing Brush tool in Adobe Photoshop to emphasize the subjects’ not having a say in how they were depicted. For me, it brings to mind modern photos that have been Photoshopped, usually to make people look thinner. If you look closely, you can see evidence of the technology at work. We understand these photos are false and delight in looking for the little clues that show the editor’s tools.
But what about photos of Indigenous Peoples? Do we look closely enough to see the photographer’s hand? Can we visually experience something like a historical perspective or bias? Syjuco gets us as close as I’ve ever seen without telling the viewer what to think or how to feel.
The exhibition is not only about areas absent from our field of vision or how people can fail to recognize the impact of their own biases. It’s also about the creation and maintenance of blind spots. We sometimes say things are “hiding” in our blind spots — if we just craned our heads a little, we could “discover” a mailbox or a parked car. But can people, or even entire cultures, really hide in our blind spots? Or are they being hidden? What is our responsibility? And where does art fit in?
It turns out Syjuco’s work indeed asks more questions than it answers. Luckily, we have the next five months to see how far we can get.
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