Zoe Strauss photos at the Art Museum (2nd review)

The Empress's off-the-rack clothes, or: The selling of Zoe Strauss

'Cynthia': Long on concern, short on imagination.
'Cynthia': Long on concern, short on imagination.

Zoe mania, aka "Zoe Strauss: Ten Years," recently began its third and final month, and when the media frenzy surrounding it finally exhausts itself, we will have witnessed the most hyped extravaganza (labels like "show" or "exhibition" being far too restrained) ever mounted by the Art Museum for a local artist, living or dead.

The museum's curator of photography, Peter Barberie, wasn't content merely to install Strauss's 150 photographs in what the museum officially called a "mid-career retrospective." He and the museum's PR department had their own agenda, seizing on the opportunity to market Strauss as a one-woman outreach program aimed not only at the customary museum-going crowd but at her disenfranchised and marginalized subjects— as well as their friends and neighbors— many of whose visits were likely one-offs. (Frankly, in our Twitter age that may be all the attention span a museum board should expect.)

The proceedings got under way with a lavish and raucous opening night dance party attended by thousands. (See the obligatory YouTube here.) Strauss's work was also installed on 54 billboards around town, replete with a trolley tour making the rounds. In addition, the museum set aside an office to allow visitors to sit and chat with the photographer. It all had a carefully planned common touch.

A studio under I-95

Strauss, who is 42, took an unorthodox route to the big time. She had no formal training in either art or photography. Instead she began her public career by mounting photographs she'd taken in the adjacent neighborhoods on the support columns beneath I-95. "Invitations" to her ultimate open studio went out to the 'hood via word of mouth, flyers and the Internet, and her outdoor show became an instant sensation and subsequently an annual event. Strauss even sold photocopies of the pictures for $5 each.

The art world soon took notice. Strauss received a Pew Grant and was included in the Whitney Biennial. She acquired a New York dealer. In the process, she was anointed an artist of the people, for the people and by the people.

No one seemed willing to consider whether her celebrity begged a larger question: Just how important is her work artistically?

Strauss's photographs fall into four general categories: portraits, the urban environment, signage and graffiti. Nearly all her images were made in Philadelphia, with occasional forays to the hinterlands.

Tank tops and tattoos

With rare exception, the subject is smack dab in the middle of the frame. Everything in these photos is meant to be simple and honest. And it is. Lots of people in tank tops with tattoos. Endless dilapidated storefronts viewed head-on. Signage, some ironic, but in a sophomoric way. Scrawled graffiti, such as "You shouldn't of taken more than you gave." In the end, however, one should never mistake bad grammar for profundity, and therein lies the rub with Strauss's work.

Her overriding approach is straightforward description and relentless cataloguing. There's nothing particularly artful about what she does. Indeed, given her outsider origins, it isn't surprising that Strauss eschews artifice, considered composition or handsome prints, focusing instead solely on content— specifically, the downtrodden and decay.

The work certainly isn't original, nor is it particularly imaginative (apart from its I-95 venue). If Strauss's intent were to evoke sympathy or offer insight into the worlds of people living hard lives in tough environments, the work falls flat, competing as it must with endless daily images of a similar persuasion, to say nothing of a long tradition of concerned photography, including that of Jacob Riis, Dorothy Lange, Walker Evans and Sebastiao Salgado, all of whom concentrated on the underclasses and the dispossessed. Strauss may feel empathy for her subjects, but those looking at the pictures are more likely to feel inured from overexposure.

On the merits of her work, did Strauss deserve such unprecedented exposure and treatment? And since the curator considered this a "mid-career" exhibition, what will Strauss do in her career's second half? On the basis of this show, my guess is: more of the same.♦

To read another review by Martha Ledger, click here.
To read responses, click here.

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