Oakland artist Stephanie Syjuco tackles big themes in S.F. show

San Francisco Chronicle



Stephanie Syjuco has been busier than ever. 


The Filipino American artist has been working on commissions and exhibitions across the United States in recent years, ranging from collaborations with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Closer to her home in Oakland, her “International Orange” installation was recently included in the San Jose Museum of Art exhibition “Encode/Store/Retrieve,” and her work is currently featured in “Into View: New Voices, New Stories” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. 


Syjuco, an associate professor of art at UC Berkeley, is also the subject of “Stephanie Syjuco: Dodge + Burn,” a survey exhibition on view through Saturday, May 4, at Catharine Clark Gallery showcasing more than two decades of her artistic journey. The show includes the West Coast debut of several of her major projects, and coincides with the release of her first monograph, “Stephanie Syjuco: The Unruly Archive.” The book features artwork and texts by Syjuco and essays by artists Astria Suparak and Carmen Winant and filmmaker Gelare Khoshgozaran. On Saturday, the gallery plans to present Syjuco in conversation with Suparak in a talk moderated by Matthew Villar Miranda, curatorial associate at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.





Syjuco spoke to the Chronicle at the gallery about her work with archives and museum collections, how she engages with the colonial gaze in Filipino culture through her work, and how growing up in San Francisco after emigrating from Manila as a child shaped her.


“I am so thankful I grew up here,” said Syjuco, 49. “I feel like I’m a real product of the Bay Area, educationally and culturally.” 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.




Q: How did growing up in the Bay Area impact your early education in art?


A: At Lowell High School in San Francisco, there was one teacher in particular, Marlene Kramer, who was so supportive of what the students were doing. She mentored me, and we started doing art field trips. I remember going to (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) when it was on Van Ness and seeing significant shows like the Jeff Koons retrospective. 


I went to high school in the ’80s, the era of the (National Endowment for the Arts) fights and early culture wars. That also influenced how I was starting to formulate my own identity as an artist. I remember going with my teacher to see the (American performance artist) Karen Finley lecture at Fort Mason right after she had her NEA funding rescinded. 


By the time I entered college, I felt like I had already had access to the dialogue in the art world. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m a teacher now. 





Q: When did work with archives and museum collections become part of your practice?



A: Working with archives kicked in in 2019 when I was invited by the chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, to do an exhibition (“Rogue State”). She connected this idea that the St. Louis World’s Fair had happened in 1904 with a huge display of Filipinos in a human zoo format. It was the perfect opportunity to work on a new project and dive into archives that were very specific. 


I think the earliest pieces in this show (“Stephanie Syjuco: Dodge + Burn”) are from the “Raiders” series. That work is based on images (of ceramics) I downloaded from the Asian Art Museum website.





Q: In “Raiders,” the objects are an illusion, just two-dimensional mounted images. Is that commentary on how institutions have engaged with communities and cultures as they’ve collected?


A: I grew up in the Richmond, and I would go by the Asian Art Museum when it was in Golden Gate Park on my bus ride to school. I was always curious why the museum that was supposedly for my culture didn’t feel like it, with no contemporary art spaces. It represented a kind of antiquarian, historical look at Asian culture in this giant lump. I was trying to pick it apart when I did the “Raiders” project. I was thinking about who gets to create the definition of Asian, and then by extension, Asian American. In order to bring it back to a contemporary place which I could relate to, I had to literally steal back some of those objects as images through their website.


Q: The show’s title work, “Dodge + Burn (Visible Storage)” is made of roughly 100 different components ranging from chroma-key green objects to 2D durian fruits. How were museum dioramas part of the inspiration?


A: I used to be an exhibition designer at the Exploratorium in my 20s. My job was to design displays of complicated ideas, mostly science or biology. I guess it seeped into my work because I have a tendency to do a lot of projects that have this very kind of frontal, almost display-like vision. 


Q: Can you tell me the inspiration for the “Cargo Cults” photo series?


A: I was critiquing the conventions of early ethnographic photography, and I used myself as a kind of stand-in. These are not portraits; I was restaging ideas of peoples from the Philippines. Spanish and American photographers would usually go and pose people in ways that created a vision of that particular culture. With these, if you look closely, you start to realize that there’s a kind of staging of this that is not what you would find in a natural image. It’s a bit of an inside joke because I can pick apart things like belts, clothes from Urban Outfitters or Forever 21 in the picture, and on my head there is a cheerleading pom-pom.  




Q: Do you think your recent work has been well-timed to some of the questions that have been circulating about representation in museums?


A: One of the ways I think my work has accidentally been positioned sometimes is that it’s about my Filipino identity. It’s informed by my heritage, but it really is more about how American culture tells stories in order to create a set of social hierarchies, racial policies, pictorial inequalities — and that’s a very broad kind of lens. I’m not trying to divorce myself from a Filipino heritage, but I think right now it’s really easy for a lot of people to put artists in buckets of background thematics. 


Q: You’ve had several big shows and institutional acquisitions recently. Does this feel like a fruitful time in your career?


A: I’m turning 50 this year, and I’ve been thinking about that symbolically. 


As a woman, as an immigrant woman, as a woman of color, your career has gone through these ups and downs. But there’s something about longevity. Time can build a dialogue around your work. My work is obviously different from when I was 30 or 40, and I think what I appreciate about the support from museums and the collector base is that I’ve now been around long enough that the work can actually be in dialogue and is getting shared.


Read more at: https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/art-exhibits/stephanie-syjuco-sf-oakland-19420500

April 29, 2024