Stephanie Sydney: I’ll Be Your Mirror. Essay by Shana Nys Dambrot

The world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. — William Makepeace Thackeray

There’s an old saying in Zen philosophy that how a person does one thing is how they do everything. And so it is with artist Stephanie Sydney, whose considerable portfolios of film and digital / photographic works and sculptural assemblages are far more intimately connected in style and esprit than their diverse materialities might suggest.

The operations of mind and hand that go into composing works of art out of pre-existing elements rather than from pure invention have unique physical and narrative dynamics. In collage and assemblage practices, this is apparent; found objects are identifiable from their former incarnations, and they enact an affecting hybrid of optical and linguistic poems and puns. As those unexpected proximities and juxtapositions tease out new meanings from familiar, even commonplace objects. one of those most compelling aspects of what Sydney does, is to wholly transfer this way of working onto her photo-based projects.

Sydney’s photographic images are also made by a methodology of combining the found (in this case, the outside world of people, places, and things) into new configurations, layering images and patterns as though building one of her sculptures. She frequently does this by employing a visual trope of reflection in glass, a phenomenological happenstance that not only sandwiches planes of pictorial space, but frequently results in capturing herself at the center, in the act of capturing — thus freezing in time moments when a panoply of unrelated images and the presence of the artist are found in the same time and place. Importantly, this is not only the result of how one artist approaches rendering, but it is also indicative of how the brain perceives and experiences the near-constant simultaneity of new information. No one goes through life one perfect object at a time, unlikely juxtapositions are in fact, the norm. And it’s also how memory works, translucent layers and an inscrutable filing system that often results in transposition, conflation, and entanglement.

Merging the profoundly personal with the cooly observed, as we see in both form and content, is the tensions that animates all of Sydney’s efforts. Subject and object are seen not as binary but rather along an experiential continuum. In her self-portraits as in the choices made in her sculptural elements, the artist herself exists as both subject and object, just as the world out there is both subject and object. It’s not so much a paradox as a nested universe, through the looking glass so to speak, as her work vibrates between dimensions, levels of consciousness, and boundaries of time and place. This works the same in the sculptures as it does in the photographs.

Though she was influenced in this assemblagist’s sensibility by figures from the mid-century avant-garde, especially Rauschenberg, Duchamp, Cornell, and Saar, as Rauschenberg himself said, “Photography has always been a major part of my vision: my excuse for meddling with what the world looks like.” Sometimes direct and descriptive, sometimes allegorical and even funny, here and there esoteric, political, poignant, and poetic — it’s how Sydney does everything.

–Shana Nys Dambrot
art critic, curator and Arts Editor, LA Weekly
Los Angeles 2018

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