I know, I know, the last thing you want to read here is more economy doom and gloom—and believe me, I'm the last person who wants to open that can of worms. But let's face it—rejection is the topic of the day right now. From the freshly laid off white collar worker reduced to applying at Starbucks because there just aren't any other jobs to the would-be homeowner who can't land a loan, everyone is tasting the bitter sting of rejection these days. And then, of course, there're the artists (and writers!)--those sad saps fated to be rejection's eternal bedfellows.
Tuning in to NPR on my way over to San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art to peep their latest show “It's Not Us, It's You,” I was just in time to catch a feature on college rejection letters and the delicate and unique art of letting 'em down easy. Ah, April—for the high school senior, the month of reckoning. Today's college hopefuls apply to far more universities than even their recent forbears, meaning a heck of a lot of rejection letters are being written, read, and subsequently torn to shreds this month (or perhaps saved to resurface one day as art—see below). Indeed, it was a fitting preamble to a show fiercely dedicated to life's disappointments, large and small.
Walking into the gallery I was immediately confronted by Anthony Discenza's giant traffic sign, pointing the way in large, bolded typeface, full caps: IT'S NOT YOU. Discenza is also responsible for the show's title, which was taken from his digital print The Way it Is, a compendium of witty reversals of dreaded thanks, but no thanks clichés (WE WON'T BE IN TOUCH. WE AREN'T GOING TO HANG ONTO YOUR RESUME. YES, THERE IS SOMEONE ELSE. You get the picture).
Orly Cogan takes a softer approach. Her piece Fluffy F**k-offs, a collection of frilly, pink, down-home style throw pillows stitched with, yup, more clichéd rejection one-liners, literally softens the blow. “We got a better offer” - “You look taller in your photo” - “We can still be friends” are a few of my personal favorites. Already insincere and hackneyed, these stock phrases are laid bare for what they really are—inadvertently cutting, off-putting, or downright depressing—when re-contextualized in the setting of the uplifting maxim. And yet, you can't help but laugh knowingly, thinking back to the time when that guy actually said that to you. Really, the joke's on him.
And then there's Stephanie Syjuco's Personal Protest (Catalyst for Change), a series of protest signs, the kind designed for public demonstrations, emblazoned with slogans against the artist herself. In the artist's own words, “a portrait of an individual by negation.” Slogans run the gamut from deeply personal (“Don't drink alone—it makes you cry”) to universal (“Stop smoking or you'll DIE”). And then there were others that cut just a little too close to home (“No more procrastinating on Facebook” - hmm, check). It strikes me how similar we all are in our personal regrets and weaknesses, how united we are in self-rebuke.
On the far wall, across from Discenza's road sign, Robert Eads' Rejection Letters dominates the space. The entire wall, top to bottom, is papered over with the artist's personal collection of rejection letters, and it's a considerable collection indeed. Every kind of letter imaginable is represented, from the brusque handwritten note to the impersonal, INSERT NAME HERE template forms. Amusingly, the handwritten letters are the most cutting in their frankness: “This work is not of interest to me and as such I refrain from commenting.” Ouch. This is no wall of shame, however; the attitude of this piece is all pride and defiance. Eads wears his rejection like a badge of honor, a mark of street cred.
What's great about this show is its funny, light-hearted take on rejection, providing exactly the kind of cathartic release—for viewer as much as artist—that we all sorely need right now. Everyone can identify with this stuff. Death, taxes, and rejection: the only sure things in life. Just flip through the Book of Rejection, a black binder three inches thick filled with rejection letters sent in from people all over just for this show, and it's clear we're all in this together. Now—who needs a drink?
(*Images, from top to bottom: Anthony Discenza, The Way it Is, digital print, courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery. It's Not Us, It's You, April 4 - June 20, 2009; San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, installation view, photo by David Pace. Stephanie Syjuco, Catalyst For Change, 2009, mixed media. It's Not Us, It's You, April 4 - June 20, 2009; San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, installation view, photo by David Pace.)