BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 06 JUN 99
Featured in
Issue 47

Darren Sylvester

BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 06 JUN 99

If advertising is the legitimate art of contemporary capitalism, then Darren Sylvester is one of its official saboteurs. Blatantly mimicking its gloss and glamour, the eight digital prints in his latest show pleasurably attempt to seduce the viewer into desiring an absent commodity. But as there's no message, no jeans logo or car badge in sight, only an emotional code pervades.

Mounted on aluminium and spread generously between open windows around the walls of a spacious gallery, four of the large-scale images make up a loose narrative around middle class experiences: consumerism, isolated relationships mediated via shiny technology and the fantasy of upward mobility. As in Sylvester's previous work, the vivid colour images work in conjunction with compact, slogan-like titles, but rather than parodying the marketing genre, they play with the emotions that advertising can arouse. Wedging open spaces for the projection of our collective fantasies and fears, they operate in an open relay with the images, in the realm of pure connotation.

Poised between an overly large family snapshot and a retail clothing catalogue, in No Longer Exposed To Problems or Tension (all works 1999), a little girl's timeless expression and vacant gaze capture a state of dreamy distraction, evoking the pre-consumerist innocence of childhood. Wearing a tartan dress and dwarfed by the park bench she sits on, her serenity stems from a portable disc player resting on her lap.

Human details completely disappear in I Wish I Had Office Friendships, Some Gossip (Homeworking), a bland side-angle portrait of an Apple computer in the style of a product promotion. Pictured in half-darkness with a pitch-black screen, the mute, beige console intones the increasing physical isolation of the title. And we're all invited to become the lonely data hacker.

The device of the concise slogan is especially striking in We Can Do Anything, We Can Go Anywhere, a brazen image of the back seat of a modern car (a recurring subject in Sylvester's work), dominated by a view through the back window of a swimming-pool-blue sky. Such an oddly framed glimpse of the sublime points towards the greater subject: the Utopian impulse of advertising - which Sylvester freely utilises - and its insidious 'we', which he subtly darkens. Aware that the best ads are affective relations waiting to explode, it's a quality he employs for his own effect. The result is a series of rootless, Utopian and placeless simulations that nevertheless still offer diffracted stories seemingly available to anyone. Like the pop songs that helped inspire them, the details are not so much concrete particulars as generic fragments of a mundane typicality.

Nothing is immune to advertising logic, least of all our own mortality. Thus a deserted hospital operating theatre, You Make Me Happy and Sad, repeats this emotional condensation with an existential twist. Who makes who happy and sad? The ambiguous mode of address resists our aesthetic detachment while simultaneously denying any real involvement. Meanwhile, the visual style of the spotlit scene is almost Gurskyesque. The mad details of telephone cords, life-support pipes, and the strange groundlessness of the unfocusable grey floor invite reflections on the unbearable technicity of being.

The series, 'London Paris Tokyo New York' consists of four portraits in three-quarter profile of young female models who look as if they've walked straight out of a Benetton ad. Superficially corresponding to the ethnicity of the title cities, they each share the same pose and hairstyles. Their ultra-even features and complexions, their Gattaca-like perfection and cosmetic cosmopolitanism disturbingly merge with the untenable rhetoric of Western biodiversity. Sylvester's prints achieve a hyperreal chromatic impact while their size - the faces alone are one metre each - gives them an imposing presence. The printing makes every pore, every blemish and every tiny wrinkle, even every fissure in the palm-sized irises visible. but high-resolution as they are, the skin tones falter up close: as on cheap porn websites, the flesh goes awry. An uncanny separation of oranges and pinks destroys the perceptual illusion of the real.

Photographic realism has never occupied such a privileged place in contemporary visual arts as it does today, with artists employing the digital to further enhance the reality effect. A study in fascination, Sylvester's realism revels in its phoney transparency and its erasure of the dirty world, using the dense emotional codings of advertising to remind us of the absolute commodification of everyday longings, and that the dreams we have are never really ours.