Martine Syms’s show “Vertical Elevated Oblique” began with a sour joke: “Everybody wanna be a black woman but nobody wanna be a black woman.” Using that as her inspiration, Syms took an incisive look at how black women are represented in the media.
The central work here—a ten-minute video, Notes on Gesture (2015)—derived its aesthetic from the Internet. The video shows an anonymous black woman with cherry-red lipstick, gold hoop earrings, tattoos, and dreadlocks making extreme facial expressions and hand gestures. Superimposed text loosely explains some of them. For example, “When the Weed Hits” is accompanied by the woman’s eyes glazing over. Gestures are repeated by means of jerky edits, causing them to look like GIFs.
Then, as if the video had exploded into the gallery, Syms installed the rest of the show like an abandoned film set. Lighting stands were used to hang prints and costumes.
The show was concisely summed up in A Certain Kind of Woman (2015), a rectangular print of a black woman with her hands on her hips, her decidedly retro image blurred like a Gerhard Richter painting. Altered in such a way, this photograph is now beyond recognition. Soon the woman’s image—the way she is represented—will come apart altogether.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 84.