Can you make a portrait of a person by examining their belongings? Their old clothes perhaps? Their video search history, a forgotten photo album or stash of old cassette tapes? News clippings, saved shopping bags? Can you do the same for a whole city, a neighborhood, or a family? In Loser Back Home, Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Martine Syms works across video, sculpture, painting, installation, design, and photography in a multivalent interpretation of her life as it is, was, never was, and might be — and gives same evocative, abstracted treatment to the places she remembers, as well as the ephemera of the events that imprinted them, and often, the clothing she wore when it all went down.
In fact textiles, and specifically garments — both newly designed, often by Syms, as well as found — appear throughout her work. A pair of large abstract “paintings,” which are actually clothing and other fabrics stretched and mounted on aluminum, highlight sewn collage as a way for a story to exist within abstraction. Nearby, Exercises for the Lone Actor embeds a small video screen in a hanging garment bag. The video depicts a police action, the bag remains zipped and its contents unknown to the viewer—a fancy-dress uniform, a suit for a funeral, anything or nothing at all. Worn as intended in film and performance-based video; deployed as physical components, imagery, and story signifiers; or deconstructed for use as raw material in wall and sculpture works, clothing in Syms’ work performs as a stand-in for the body, a presence of the figure’s absence, and a trail of personal and collective relics and touchstones for past experiences.
In the much larger scale video i am wise enough to die things go, the actor speaks in the first person about her frustrations, obstacles, innately volatile nature due to her Californian nature and astrological chart. At one point she wears a shirt with the statement To Hell With My Suffering — a piece of clothing that appears elsewhere in Syms’ work in both photography and video, as well as in the upstairs gallery as part of a monumental photocollage. Facing the screens is a low-slung couch made of moving blankets. Also present in the video i am wise enough to die things go is a sequence featuring the large-scale, black-and-white line painting of a cartoonish cityscape, Belief Strategy XVI, which also hangs nearby. Its clean, bouncy lines have a certain coloring book quality, while at the same time, its large scale is perfect for its role as setting in the video work. In an exhibition about the loss of place and the preservation of memory as a part of selfhood, its starkly schematic openness and activation in the context of the video offers itself a site for creating new actions, places and memories.
If that painting feels minimal, the upstairs gallery installation Dream about the forrest fingering me from both ends is superlatively maximal. The panoramic photocollage borders on an immersive aesthetic. A full-surround of floor-to-ceiling pictures filled with highlighted and obscured details, juxta positional but with a settled dream logic, proceeds in all directions with a gritty, diaristic fragmentation of seemingly casual snapshots and important moments writ large.
In its architectural scale and scope it contains multitudes in itself, but Syms augments it with carefully, and sometimes roughly, crafted sculptural objects, as well as bricolage cardboard boxes containing short videos — one a menacing and absurd extended visit from police to her studio, where it eventually emerges an alarm had gone off, the other a bifurcated tale of romance and ridiculous adventure, with bits of art history and iconic landmarks for historical scale, and surrealist non sequiturs for levity.
The room thus surrounded by a multimedia pageant of everything all at once hosts a suite of chair-based stacked sculptures, furthering Syms’ material language of schmatte, power, and commerce with text-based messaging enhancing her reclamation of easily discarded packaging and portable furniture as effective channels of more permanent kinds of communication. Her reuse and salvage constitutes a material action with implications for establishing true value under capitalism — but all the while, these works never stop keeping track of life’s rhythm of inflection points, constructions of identity, intrusions of loss, and strategies of remembering.
Loser Back Home is on view at Sprüth Magers, 5900 Wilshire Blvd., through Aug. 26. Visit spruethmagers.com for details.
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