What Is Revealed When You Sleep

This is my Catalog Essay for WHEN YOU SLEEP, Shizu Saldamando's new survey of work at the VIncent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles. The show opened on September 21, 2013 and you should check it out if you're in LA.



What Is Revealed When You Sleep

It is in this space of Shizu Saldamando’s When You Sleep where we hear the dissonance in our minds; of who we are in the sobering stirring of the morning after, where escapist strategies had uninhibitedly reigned supreme. Shizu presents a visual record that explores the nocturnal meanderings of youthful discrepancy; the social experiments gone sublimely awry. That is probably why you bob your head as the silent receivers of Shizu’s images; there is music there, of course, and recognition.

Whenever Shizu is out at a party in LA’s Highland Park or a fun karaoke night at a Little Tokyo bar, at least one of the night’s walking somnambulists will make it into her artwork. As someone who has been one of the many butches immortalized in her work, I have seen Shizu wielding the always present camera and snapping away capturing moments that seem like booze-fueled throwaway scenes that you’d hate to be tagged in the morning after on the social media against your will. Except when she renders the subject—or rather her friends or people she knows using a mix of materials within the process such as wood, bed sheets, color pencil, washi paper and ball point pen, to give nod to the varying contexts and situations she depicts—she strips the party/rock show/gallery/outdoor festival context and casts a wash of ontological purity that brings the deeper, darker serenity floating inside each person to the surface. And each person may not be aware of such forces at play, for this is what we the viewer—or rather the receiver—see When You Sleep.


The bulk of Shizu’s work has focused on making youth cultures she has been a part of for the last twenty years visible in such a way that expresses an ontology of the ordinary; a visual murmur that reveals a lot without revealing the secrets of our complicated public identities and the scary abyss within our very private selves. That Shizu is still a part of these youth-oriented social spheres also puts forth the idea that youth can be extrapolated away from aging or demographic information. Youth in Shizu’s hands becomes an internalized endeavor.

Shizu’s project relies on magnifying her subjects by way of creating a negative space around the individual(s) that gleans more from the absence of spatialized context than the environment they occupy could ever reveal. Shizu creates an oblique portraiture that is about the people who surpass their contexts as an invitation to the viewer to activate their own queries and conjecture onto the subjects—maybe mutual friends—in the work. In conventional portraiture there is a direct and formal engagement with the subject’s deliberate self-fashioning. That formality is consistently avoided in Shizu’s haphazard snapshots. That gives way to Shizu fostering a found representation of her subjects creating an alternative formality where individuals are more complex than language and place and moreso when their choices reflect and betray those complexities. Or can at least be read that way in a work such as Carm’s Crew.

In Carm’s Crew, three distinct articulations of female gender are present in the bodies of three friends bound by a genre of affinity. The two young women flank another young woman wearing a black sweatshirt, with hoodie placed over her head and are ensconced deep in the corner of Shizu’s framing which creates (or complicates) an intimacy so powerful that Shizu hurls rays of goldleaf and glitter like outward halos that keeps predators, emotional vampires or other banal haters at arm’s length. The hoodie in Shizu’s hands becomes a feminist project; a tool against the patriarchy as it already creates a sense of gendered ambuguity. In relation to the triad of friends or sisters from other misters the hoodie creates the playful middle in the spectrum that disrupts the relation between and opposition with femininity and masculinity. Everyone in Carm’s Crew doesn’t trip on who’s sexually oriented to whom making loyalty a currency as valuable as gold.


Over the course of her career, Shizu’s use of negative space is one that enables a radical speculative about the subjects in her images. Unlike the world-making that emerges in John Valadez’ Car Show (2001), where every bit of sky and peek of a car’s front hood is imagining and interconnecting with a complicated Chicano identity as much as the men and women that people that reality, we see the possibility for a different kind of subjective self-possession in Shizu’s work that is weighty in that it is not contingent on an expositional context.

However, the negative space is not always the whiteness of canvas or weighted paper. Bed sheets, for example, create a sense of superbly intimate settings for subjects intwined and engaged in amorous quietude. And Shizu renders another possibility of what happens When You Sleep, but others are wide awake.

Despite the hushed sweetness of the couples in Grandstar, Chinatown or Ripples, Long Beach one might not be able to resist projecting a set of narratives onto these images—perhaps the first couple met on Craigslist and after a series of successful and titillating G-chat sessions decided to take their virtual flirting into the material world. Or maybe at the Blur concert in 1996, except they were there with different partners. What if they are a few degrees removed from the same ex? To quote Blur’s popular genderqueer club anthem “Girls and Boys”: love in the nineties is paranoid.

However, what is so covetous is the lack of paranoia here, even as the couple is presented as pieces of an otherwise unseen public. One in which Shizu illustrates to a romantic degree a space that is often antagonistic. These moments on the bed sheet softly intimate that we adjust our way of seeing so that we can locate hope that the public space be not only merciful but kind towards the lovers we observe, who not so incidentally happen to inhabit vulnerable subjectivities in the social schema.

But let’s imagine going beyond the banality of intimacy here and offer another reading that brings intimacy to a rapturous register even when it is failure that acts as the anchor. Let’s bring it back to the state of fandom, of being fanatical, of being the #1 fan. That set of feelings that come with gushing, twitching and stalking the object of our admiration and affections. Have you ever seen early Morrissey live performance videos where fans bum rush the stage as though they were seeking absolution? Seeing the people in Shizu’s work makes one self-cognizant of how we make good, rabid fans, especially since as adolescents we tend to offset our outsider feelings of robust alienation with quiet, desperate longing.

A first foray into fandom takes place in private—by pushing play on the CD deck, the iPod, and even, the turntable. For many of us, this experience began in the bedroom with a Kenwood system and headphones handed down to us by older siblings. The bedroom has a bed and that bed has sheets that witness, enshroud, embody the most intimate of acts. 

Shizu’s use of the bed sheet transforms their function as they now operate as the placeholder of a secret affection transpiring between the couples in her work. She moves towards creating the bedroom as a site of connection instead of one of consumption, as seen in Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1865), whose female subject’s defiant stare was one of the first to trouble the social order in pre-La Belle Époque France. However, the impact in Olympia’s returning gaze is still tempered by her nude passivity which abounds for male gazing. The bedroom also poses an alternative to alienation; Chris Burden’s Bed Piece (1972), where he eschewed all human contact favoring lying nude in his bed for three weeks comes to mind as the artistic prototype for estrangement (Tilda Swinton having done the same for a mere twenty four hours earlier in 2013 at the MOMA in New York to some fanfare).

The private sphere of the bedroom is a place where many an awkward youth have reigned supreme be that with hairbrush in the mirror singing along to some stubborn torch song (like the young lad in Morrissey’s “Last of The Famous International Playboys” video) or making love to the mirror in Saturday Night Live-originated Superstar-style with the hopes of attracting a mate (just like the howling desire felt in “How Soon Is Now?”). Who of us that haven’t spent hours of practicing our Blue Steel gazes can cast the first stone?

Even through mere implication of its absence in her media, the bedroom is cast as the site of self-formational transgression as a private domain for youth; the last bastion before stepping into hostile domestic and public spaces shared by family members and ordinary citizens. It is the last over-the-shoulder peek at the mirror.

The private and the public meet in Shizu’s work—the imaginary longing finding its tangible parallel in public and challenging invisibility with a stolen kiss, a tender moment, an embrace kept intact, never broken by what public spatial implications tend to do to its wary young denizens.

We make good fans because we act out emotional misfires and general fuckery on those that we love and that do not love us back. Most of our unwilling receptacles of our adoration nary have good reason for such worship; these crushes don’t sing, dance, act or write but we deem them crushworthy nonetheless. Morrissey offers in the form of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (1986) a vehicle needed to indulge in the melancholic search for sweet oblivion.

Shizu captures that oblivion in When You Sleep. Even in the title alone, as evidenced in the piece Backyard Hardcore, sleep here becomes two sites of surrender in the post-haze of youthful revelry. But even with the people in these works, we get to experience a whole world of their making even when they themselves are not awake to be there. In Backyard Hardcore, we see the back of a punk passed out from a night of drinking but his waking chaos is nowhere to be found. Instead he lies nestled against what one can imagine to be a tree trunk or maybe a sand dune. His sleep catching him away from the comfort and familiarity of his bed, though we can imagine a sense of freedom that enshrouds the young person into feeling safe, even when he or she is vulnerable and subject to the laws that rule public space, under the stars.

Through Shizu’s work, we are given space to imagine the events that lead to oblivion (the search for music and people who are young and alive). The space has been as ample as Shizu’s artistic latitude and it give us the opening to project our own narratives onto the worlds she creates. These are worlds we imbue with a sense of our own curiousities, contradictions, and varying degrees of liberation that produce the dream of belonging even and especially when no one else is around.