BY Carmine Iannaccone in Reviews | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Mitchell Syrop

BY Carmine Iannaccone in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

If, after thousands of years of being knocked off one pedestal or another, human beings still suffer from any kind of collective pride as a species, Mitchell Syrop is here to set us straight. We're never as singular or special as we'd like to think. Still, it isn't exactly pride that Syrop exposes, but something closer to vanity - the vanity cultivated by all the systems of self-representation that pump up our ego as individuals even as they subsume us within homogenising institutional formulae.

Syrop gave these formulae devastating expression with his earlier 'yearbook' projects. These consisted of 21.5 x 27.5 cm inkjet print reproductions of high school yearbook photographs carefully arranged in large grids on the wall. One's eyes were encouraged to scan them like a crossword puzzle, and in so doing, discover a whole range of 'family' groupings that the artist had configured within them. Often, these were based on the various ways in which we identify ourselves culturally - girls with the same plucked eyebrow shapes, boys with the same macho attitude, teachers with the same spectacle frames. But even more eerie was how other similarities - of eye shape, chin position, forehead size, hairline - seemed to indicate that the individuals shared similar personalities, even though there was nothing to prove that this was true.

If we imagine ourselves as living in an enlightened, pluralistic society where enforced doctrines about the nature of people and things no longer exist, Syrop's work makes us think again. The doctrines are still out there, only they operate more covertly, because the institutions that foster them now are so decentralised. The high school is one such institution, the church is another. In his new work, Syrop doesn't look for dogma in a given religion's cosmological pronouncements, but rather in its parish membership registries.

The artist has arranged the photos from these registries in the same way as the high school yearbook images, with the most noticeable difference being that these pictures always show a married couple, rather than an individual. Sometimes you can identify patterns that show the same 'type' of woman married to a variety of different men, or vice versa, but you also find yourself pulling back, looking for the aura of each couple as a unit, comparing more general conjugal qualities: the ones who probably fight, the ones who like to have fun, the ones you'd never want to have over for dinner.

You are forced to grasp at much less tangible signifiers in this work because the images these people project are far more calcified than the vulnerable self-image of the teenagers. Patterns are there, but in trying to nail them down, the nature of one's own criteria are exposed. Do you find yourself trying to decide which partner is dominant? Imagining sexual behaviours? Assessing tastes? Any category one devises is ultimately imaginary, so that the whole grid flutters between unsubstantiated expectation and the possibility that there's more to this schematic history of love, despair, guilt, fidelity and infidelity than those terms can ever account for.

Because it deals with hidden systems of signification, Syrop's work runs the risk of seeming therapeutic in nature - as if by identifying such systems, he tenders the hope that one can transcend them. It wouldn't be the first time that art had posited itself as a kind of salvation, but Syrop is either too savvy or too cynical to buy into that. He knows that he too is just a player within these networks, and his most recent torn lithographic posters come close to giving that realisation a voice.

Each of these pieces appropriates the image of a gorgeous landscape - the kind travel agencies use to prick escapist fantasy. Pieces in the form of letters are torn out of these images to spell epithets like 'Pull Yourself Together', or 'The Same Mistake'. The words seem to alert us to the seduction at work, but they're always taken from the same social circuit that the pictures inhabit. All the work can do is recycle clichés in ways that illuminate a certain world, but never pretend to escape it.