According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of the end of March, 2009, the number of unemployed workers in the U.S. had topped 13.2 million. Of that 13.2 million, 5.3 million people lost their jobs during the current recession. That's 5.3 million good and decent folks, including yours truly, who have been told that their services are no longer required, that the pleasure of their company is not requested, that, in short, they should be so kind as to take a hike.
Visual artists are on a first-name basis with rejection, as the work in It's Not Us, It's You at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art amply shows. The exhibit begins at the front door with a text piece by Anthony Discenza called "The Way It Is." "WE WON'T BE IN TOUCH," it begins, screaming its rebuffs in bold, capital letters. "WE AREN'T GOING TO HANG ONTO YOUR RESUME. WE DON'T WANT TO STAY FRIENDS." On and on it continues in a litany of rejection, each a perfect 180 on the standard falsehoods found in any number of form letters. The sentiments are so spot on that the show's title is taken from Discenza's last expression of unvarnished candor: "IT'S NOT US, IT'S YOU."
Inside, we are greeted by a needlessly large plexiglass donation box by Steve Lambert titled "Steve Lambert Refuses to Participate in the Exhibit." A legend near the box promises that all the money collected will be divided among the artists in the show because the SJICA didn't budget any money for artist fees. On the day I attended, a scattering of ones and a few fives sat unimpressively at the bottom of the box, adding irony to the piece's tongue-in-check rejection of a show about rejection.
Orly Cogan presents the softer side of rejection with "Fluffy F**k-offs," a collection of 15 embroidered throw pillows sitting cheerily on a plain white shelf. Each bears a sweetly rendered, soul-killing message. "We're not accepting applications" is sewn onto one pillow with wide gold, blue and bronze stripes; a white needlepoint flower provides dissonant decoration. Nearby, an old-timey couple stands before a fairytale cottage; "Membership closed" we read, and suddenly the needlepoint couple in the scene is no longer paying a visit to grandma's house. They've been barred at the door.
For "Rejection Winery," artist and show curator Ray Belder invited 12 artists to each create a label for a bottle of wine. Alas, most of the labels look like rejected submissions sent to despair.com. Belder would have done well to reject a few of these, but he rejected no one for his "Book of Rejection," which contains hundreds of rejection letters, an embarrassingly large percentage of which were contributed by an artist named Barbara Kossey. I didn't read all of the letters addressed to Kossey, but most appeared to have been delivered during the mid-to-late 1980s. Was Kossey subjecting herself to this sustained systematic rejection in order to create a piece about it? One way or the other, via Belder, she has. For me, one Kossey letter in particular held special significance: In 1986, Kossey was rejected by the same company that recently canned me. I can't explain why I found it oddly thrilling to see that letter from Sunset -- when dealing with rejection, one takes consolation where one finds it.
In general, the pieces that adhere closest to the show's narrow focus work best. For example, Mike Arcega's "Weaving Dollies" is a clever, almost-useful object -- four walnut furniture dollies have been woven together to handsome, if impractical, effect. Not sure what it's doing here, but in his catalog statement Belder admits that some of the artist were chosen simply because they are familiar with rejection. Welcome to the meeting, Mike. Stephanie Syjuco's installation of white "Personal Protest" signs leaning against two gallery walls is similarly close-but-no-cigar. Rendered in blocky black or red type, the declarations range from "PAY YOUR BILS ON TIME" to "YOUR HAIR LOOKS OK." Being personal in nature, the protests are mundane, so the piece's mundane appearance is fitting, I guess, but I was less inspired to take action that I was to move on.
The two artists who seem most at home here are Arthur Gonzales and Robert Eads. Gonzales took a series of rejection letters from prestigious New York galleries, UC Davis and a mental-health center and used them as canvases for ruminations on the rejection he had just suffered. In a watercolor on a letter from Charles Cowles Gallery, Gonzales has drawn a lonely figure, elbows on a surface, head in his hands. A thought bubble encircles the word "unfortunately" in the Cowles letter, as in "I am a fan of your work. Unfortunately the gallery is absolutely full at this time." 'If he's really such a fan of my work,' we imagine the character is thinking, 'he would have added that he looks forward to showing my work as soon as there's an opening.' Rejected again.
Robert Eads also uses rejection letters as the raw materials for his art. He even uses the slide sheets that accompanied artist submissions back in the stone age before we all went digital. "Spindle" features dozens of his Xeroxed resumes, rejection letters and slide sheets, many still containing slides of the artist's work, impaled by a rake, whose handle has been replaced by an evil-looking spike. Eads's "Rejection Letters" is even simpler in its approach. Reminiscent of the rejection-letter walls that appear at high schools around the country at this time of year, the installation papers an entire gallery wall, floor to ceiling, with decades of polite variations on thanks, but no thanks. When life gives you lemons you make lemonade. Based on the work in It's Not Us, It's You, artists must drink a lot of that stuff.
It's Not Us, It's You runs through June 20, 2009 at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.