Darren Sylvester

Darren Sylvester

Work from his oeuvre.

“It may seem a little perverse to describe Darren Sylvester’s exhibition at sullivan+strumpf, his fifteenth solo show in ten years, by a definition of a Pantone category, but bear with me. In 2008, Pantone, global purveyor of colour trends, declared Pantone 18-3943 (’Blue Iris’) to be the colour of the year, claiming that, ‘the stable and calming aspects of blue with the mystical and spiritual qualities of purple […] satisfies the need of reassurance in a complex world, while adding a hint of mystery and excitement.’

It would seem that the Melbourne-based photographer / sculptor / part-time designer / pop musician / producer is not just the maestro of ‘slash vocations’, but a wily observer of trends – from fashion to music to popular culture. The scattering of gaudy purple detail in the latest collection of clean, ultra-glossy digital photographs – namely a woman’s dress, a pair of bed sheets and an eye-splitting backdrop – are a subtle reminder that the referencing of trends has been a regular feature in Sylvester’s repertoire. This was most recently seen in I Care for You (2008), a large acrylic painting featuring 12 blocks of colour that perfectly match that of a Clinique ‘Colour Surge’ eye shadow compact. 

Over the last five years Sylvester has developed a reputation for producing highly stylized photographs that render the nuances of mass media advertising palpable. He does so by presenting and embracing the dynamic tools of the industry. Painstakingly constructing each photograph like a commercial shoot, Sylvester starts with a ‘pitch’ (or rather a line from one of his short stories), moving on to a sketched story board, test shots, casting of actors (or friends), set constructions, wardrobe fittings, prop hunting, hair, make-up and finally digital re-working. Nothing is left to chance. 

Announcing Sylvester’s fascination with the pop industry, the first photographs you encounter in sullivan+strumpf are doppelgänger portraits of Grace Jones and Brian Ferry. They provoke a moment’s hesitation as one looks for details to confirm the subjects’ identities. But the photographs are constructed along the lines of Sylvester’s advertising-inspired images. The backgrounds – a graduating mauve for Jones, in Take me to you (2009), and a luminous Mediterranean blue for Ferry, in Take me to you again (2009) – suggest a longing for an era of care-free, glittery disco-pop, but are refuted by the tired, waxy looking protagonists, who would likely stumble across the floor rather than glide.

Two additional portraits, again stage-managed productions, show a blonde, toothy starlet posing with hand on hip, elbow crooked and adorned with a purple silk dress and a turquoise crocodile clutch in front of a backdrop of logos: UNICEF; Malawi Orphan Care Initiative; and Gucci. We have seen countless images like these in the weekly gossip mags. (Perhaps literally in this case, given that the photographs re-stage PR snaps of Rihanna and Jessica Alba taken during a Madonna-hosted, Gucci-funded fundraising event at the UN headquarters in 2008 for orphaned Malawian children.) Any consideration of how genuine a starlet’s investment in a cause, not to mention the intentions behind a collaboration between two diametrically opposed organisations, is overshadowed by our desire to see what the starlet is wearing, who she came with to the charity event and whether she’s lost weight, or gained it. Such images reference pop-culture’s spectator sport: the game of B-list celebrities boosting brand visibility. It also hints at the fact that sales pitches come at us from many sources, whether it be ‘humanitarianism or handbags’, as Anthony Carew points out in the accompanying catalogue.

Drum Machine (2009)

These highly contrived works hint at Sylvester’s fascination with hero adoration. However, the additional pieces in the show – highlights of which include a video titled I Was The Last In The Carpenters’ Garden (2008); a turntable playing Sylvester’s self-titled pop album (currently available on vinyl, but due for CD release by Unstable Ape in June 2009); and a fully functioning replica of the Simmons Suitcase Kit (a drum kit made briefly famous by New Order) – suggest that the exhibition is neither simply a critique of fan culture nor a moment of nostalgia. The fact Sylvester never once set foot in the Carpenters’ back garden -– which featured as a recreated sound-stage set for the artist to walk through in the video – means he’s not so much nostalgic (in the sense of desiring a return to a time or place he once knew) but rather, amusingly, trying to prove he is the archetypal fan, or perhaps even a borderline stalker. He knows every detail of the garden, or the drum kit, despite having owned neither.

This point is most obvious in Sylvester’s first attempt at a pop album. The record plays on perpetual loop, casting a soft melodic blanket over the gallery. As a background noise it is smooth and joyous, a perfect complement to the photographs, but if you take the time to listen to it in full there is a slight grate in the constant appropriation. It’s almost as if Sylvester is trying to gauge whether the level of musician worship among his listeners is more refined than his; asking who can hear the highest number of references to beats, riffs and lyrics. Nonetheless it’s worth a spin, because really, isn’t pop always layered with self-gratifying referentiality? Coupled with Sylvester’s sentimental imagery the album gives the exhibition a light and entertaining value, with just a ‘hint of mystery’, as Pantone would put it, to top it off. ” – Nicola Harvey for Frieze Magazine

via i heart photograph

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