Powerful, but not pretty

Zoe Strauss photos at the Art Museum (1st review)

5 minute read
'Daddy Tattoo': In your face, but not threatening.
'Daddy Tattoo': In your face, but not threatening.
Zoe Strauss's photographs are currently being exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as on 52 billboards in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Between 2001 and 2010, Strauss displayed them in South Philadelphia near the Target store under Interstate 95. Her installations there took place on first Sundays in May and lasted for just a few hours. As important as the individual photos were to her, she said, her primary goal was to put art into a public space.

The under-I-95 installations covered broad thematic territory: personal imagery; gender and its fluidity; addiction and desire; American identity; getting by; and good feelings such as hope, pride and joy.

In the current exhibition, culled from those I-95 installations, the photos fall into simpler categories: people, buildings and signage, plus a smattering of landscapes (Alaskan mountains, California hills), seascapes (Pacific Ocean) and skyscapes.

Tentative welcome

This wide-ranging exhibition flows from wrenching to funny, from traditionally artistic to wholly conceptual. It includes some seriously good photographs, which succeed variously through artful composition, wryness or the ability to generate abstract ideas from physical things, as in her photo Welcome.

Here Strauss has snipped the single word "welcome" from a sky-written message that must have been more extensive. The white smoke beckons you into celestial realms— a funny idea in itself— but there's more. The writing is beginning to break apart, suggesting that the welcome is only temporary.

The exhibition delivers a variety of serious messages, the strongest and saddest being that the American dream doesn't apply to many Americans— certainly not those Strauss photographed in her neighborhood, or those across the river in Camden, or those living hard lives all over America.

Tattooed and wounded

It's mostly not a pretty exhibition. Strauss's powerful portraits present poor people who've endured not just poverty but all manner of bodily insults: bullet holes, a black eye, bruises, lost limbs, a grotesque hysterectomy sew-up, self-inflicted cuts, torn earlobes and needle tracks. Many of those photographed are tattooed, and many are gotten up in garish street outfits, unsettling masks, clown costumes and crudely applied face paint.

Strauss doesn't judge them, and she doesn't let you judge them either. They are not menacing, pitiable, or ingratiating. Photographed up close, usually placed front and center, they project a strong sense of self. They may be down but they're not out. You can't ignore them, or their wounds, or the fact that they're not living the American dream.

Language bites back

The sense of failed expectations also underlies many of the photos with signage. In these, Strauss is often amused at how language comes back to bite us. Perhaps the best example is the photo EVERYTHING, of a dilapidated storefront whose big glass window is crammed with clocks, mirrors, toilet paper holders, window screens, bedding, etc. But its sign— "EVERYTHING"— has lost most of its letters, so that only the ER, TH, and G are intact. It's now something less than everything.

This irony precipitates additional ironies in the viewer's mind: How could anyone claim that material things could be everything anyhow? And then to a more sobering irony: A woman, child on hip, is about to enter the store, which could be a microcosm of her entire world— her everything.

The last detail I noticed— which Strauss must have taken as a gift from the gods— was that the blue signage was attached to a white building with a red gutter, endowing the image with a specifically American reference. (The American flag itself and its color scheme appear throughout the exhibition, and with a similar message.)

If you head west….

Driving home from the museum, I passed one of Strauss's billboards— actually two billboards, side by side, at the end of the Spring Garden Street Bridge, where they loomed over the entrance to the gritty Mantua neighborhood. They were frothy seascapes, and I knew from the exhibition that they were photos of the Pacific Ocean.

At first I was surprised. Populated versus uninhabited? Each tumultuous, but in different ways? I found myself checking in which direction I was driving. I was heading west, of course. Which is to say, if I continued driving, I would eventually reach America's other coast and its other ocean.

Suddenly I felt both a sense of tremendous distance and of having encompassed it. I thought of Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover, which makes a similar leap from Manhattan's western avenues to the Pacific and Asia, and I started laughing out loud.

"Zoe Strauss: Ten Years" worked for me. I hope other people get a chance to experience it too.♦

To read a commentary on the Megawords component of this show by Victoria Skelly, click here.
To read another review by Tom Goodman, click here.

What, When, Where

“Zoe Strauss: Ten Years.†Through April 22, 2012 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benj. Franklin Pkwy. and 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.

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