Sunday, June 10, 2007
Zoe Strauss is the real deal
"Do rag," Zoe Strauss, All rights reserved
Zoe Strauss’s show (through 6/23) at Silverstein Photography is titled, “If You Reading This Fuck You,” although in its press materials the gallery prefers to shorten it to, “If You Reading This.” That tells you something. Strauss shows it the way she sees it. Before going up on the walls in Chelsea, most of these pictures were first shown to Strauss’s South Philadelphia neighbors as taped-up prints in an outdoor installation under I-95 where it passes over Front & Mifflin Streets. They’d better be honest.
"Marine billboard," Zoe Strauss, All rights reserved.
Irony may be a fact of modern life, but Strauss is nevertheless determined not to let the viewer off easy. The show has a picture of a wary-looking black man on crutches making his way down a rundown street. Above him a Marine recruiting poster shows a gleaming pink-cheeked young warrior in his dress uniform. It’s a strong picture, one any photographer would be proud of. But it’s unusual in this show, which generally avoids the obvious to hone in directly on its subjects. Strauss photographs hustlers, crack users, victims of domestic violence & crazies, sometimes with grim humor, but she’s not granting you, the viewer, comfortable distance or detachment. These people are not exotic characters to be contemplated. They’re in your face.
In the same way her pictures of signage & graffiti – surely among the loudest honking of contemporary cliché subjects – have a direct unmediated quality that channels the desperation & rage of the people who scrawled them. Messages like “White trash whorse go home” [sic] or “…that man fucked up…” are not kidding around. Thus, when Strauss pulls back to show an empty billboard above a tangle of unloved roadway the effect is not – or not only – poetic.
In this show juxtaposition adds meaning, but the effects are not easy or cleverly grouped to flatter the viewer’s perspicacity. I’m thinking of the way Strauss includes so many pictures of institutional buildings. Some of these have designations like Victory Annex (yes, ironic) but others are simply blank or generic. To most of us, these buildings start out being merely ugly, but the show leads us to see them from a new point of view. Their impersonality become forbidding, even malevolent.
"Lights in Chinatown," Zoe Strauss, All rights reserved.
In the same way the many images of futility & chaos – scrambled venetian blinds, falling down houses, shot-up appliances in a trash-filled desert landscape – become more than abstract visual exercises. I was wondering why they’re not downers? Part of it is just Strauss’s good eye. She finds compelling designs in her subjects like any successful photographer, but, more than that, she makes you know this is her home turf & she cares about it.
“The juxtaposition of the difficulty involved in getting by and the beauty in our everyday lives is what I’m interested in,” says Strauss. It’s one artist’s statement that delivers.