How Jed Escueta’s ‘Shoo Shine’ Makes Darkness a Friend

In the months developing his solo show, Jed Escueta began listing all the things that didn’t need shine: magma, underwear, bats. “It was around five in the afternoon when they came out and I took the picture, back in 2015,” Jed remembers.

The photograph in question, titled “Music of the Lower Spheres, Olongapo Bats,” is tubed inward, with a smattering of hand-painted black dots against a white backdrop. Chime-shaped and sconcing the wall, the work shields itself against the light, exactly like the wings of a bat asleep. In “Down Bat Positive,” one such bat is flushed red and awake, its expected substance now just a perturbed outline, a tincture upon exposure.

Music of the Lower Spheres, Olongapo Bats. Photograph. 11 x 14 inches. 2021.
Down Bat Positive. Print on fabric. Variable dimensions. 2021.

Jed Escueta is an analog photographer. Playing with light in a darkroom is his creative métier. For the Down Negative series, Jed took Halloween gummies and their candied molds, complemented them with homemade slime, then exposed these objects using an enlarger onto photo-sensitive paper. Afterward, they’re soaked in the appropriate chemicals and then fixed onto sheets.

The Down Negative works vary, one’s a hand, another a devil, their monstrous aspects are undaunted, counterbalanced by their gelatinous bodies and syrupy silhouettes. The atmosphere is dark fantasy stripped of horror, where oddities glow with preternatural light.

In many ways, the show is an homage to his darkroom experiments. “To be able to continue what you like doing,” Jed tells, “that’s important to me. To be able to still put out a show, stay committed, and pull through. It makes me feel alive.” The photos Jed takes are for the long run. They’re stored and readily available, selectively printed, and their use changes over time. A thousand images are printed around and across two pillars at the center of MO_Space’s gallery 2, precariously askew, both covered with snapshots of the word “off,” taken as early as 2012. Across “Down Bat Positive,” covering the wall, is a replicated image of bricks.

Exhibition view of Pillar of Off's (From 1000 Offs) and the Down Negative series.
Poor Bone Kids, Play Some Noise and Live to Be. Hand-painted photograph. 13 x 19 inches. 2021.

Amid these in the photography-based installation, there’s “Celestial Chain,” a rigid, snaking pattern winding upward, surrounded in the good company of drawn stars after Cocteau and Kerouac. Gathered at the corner are a heap of small prints, “Spiderlings,” as they’re called. “As I thought about things that didn’t ‘need’ shine, I began to think about shine as a hindrance. What else could hinder, block, encumber?”

In a space where gravity only marginally applies, most other principles of physics are thrown out the window: a rigid chain’s heaviness is pulled and snapped sideways; beams of support are revealed as disjointed, hollow, and constructed out of paper and tape. In a darkroom where creativity is as paramount as it is solitary, it’s word association and play that string Shoo Shine together. Unhampered, it’s a sense of wonder and ingenuity that is given way.

The exhibition title, too, is a play of a retort to a saying the artist had once read: “What do you get when you’re out of money, and you’re broke, and you don’t have a job? You get a haircut and a shoeshine.”

“When I read that,” Jed explains, “I found out it meant that if you want to land your next job, you need to look your best. It was about appearance.” But polish is hardly Jed’s pursuit: for long during the early 2000s, Jed had been documenting the local underground punk scene. Some things do better without shine, Jed asserts, “then shine connected to other things for me, types of shine I don’t really want: the shine of fame, perfection, success.”

“Knowledge, also,” Jed continues. At this point, the operative phrase is “shedding light,” as he recalls the work that remains the most unobtrusive in Shoo Shine: “F. Kafka’s Apple on J. Melencio’s Table.” It is a small piece slathered with collage cut-outs of anything colored pink from Jed’s cache of photographs.

Exhibition view of Spiderlings. 2.6 x 2 inches each. 2021.

Toward the end of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s father throws an apple at his cockroach of a son. As his back was turned, the fruit stuck on his carapace and was left there to rot, but was injurious enough to cause poor Gregor to die. A common reading suggests that this prominent symbol for knowledge, the apple, presented to Gregor the reality that he, with his deteriorating humanity, sought to deny. Plainly, that neither he nor his family could recognize him as the Gregor they knew.

As for the table, the topic of interest is surely its quaint color. It was inspired by a story that used to make the rounds, Jed explains. “One of those stories that lead you on and waste your time, it would go on and on and even at the end, it would never answer why the table is pink.” The table is missing part of its leg, inclined to fall, and it likely would without the apple to balance it. “It’s open-ended and half a joke. It’s the nonsense I enjoyed. It’s not about what it means, but it makes you think. Do some kinds of knowledge make things better? Or worse?”

F. Kafka's Apple on J. Melencio's Pink Table. 3.5 x 4 x 3 inches. 2021.

Jed Escueta’s Shoo Shine continues at MO_Space until Sunday, February 7, alongside the group show, Mute Earth. MO_Space allows walk-ins, and they have a ton of brochures of their past shows, perfect for a catch-up.

Images courtesy of the artist.