In Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, Strauss’ Philly-bred photography comes out from under the I-95 interstate (where from 2001 to 2010 she converted an empty lot under the overpass in South Philly into a temporary public-art gallery) but stays tied to the city grid. Employing massive shifts in scale and proximity, Strauss’ exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art features both modestly sized photographs in the gallery and an expansive installation of billboards that chart an epic voyage throughout the city.
Whether it’s “La Corona” presiding over Passyunk Avenue and Reed Street or “Fortune” blending into the streetscape at Lancaster Avenue and 52nd Street, you’ll most likely glimpse one of Strauss’ 54 billboards before you ever set foot in the PMA gallery. And the billboards take you not just around Philadelphia, but also around the country. With images from Venice, Calif., to Venice, La., Strauss deploys a mix of landscapes, seascapes, moonscapes and portraits carefully selected to activate the specific city blocks over which they float. At Grays Ferry Avenue and 34th Street, a billboard titled “Nila Holding Shirt” shows a widow holding up a piece of her husband’s clothing. A radiation and cancer victim who worked at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Production Facility in Colorado, Nila’s husband joins a billboard of Three Mile Island against the backdrop of our very own PECO Energy plant. The placement is chilling.
At the PMA, the height and breadth of the billboards is countered by a tightly packed gallery installation of photographs. The effect is powerful, if slightly dulled by the formality of frames and the distance imposed by their glass. Much like the billboards, the photographs here are a mix of arresting portraits, architectural abstractions and peculiar signage.
Clustered together, however, a curious disjointedness emerges between verbal and nonverbal messages. The portraits are closely cropped and rarely share the frame with the written signs. This firm separation between mute people and vociferous language in Strauss’ photography can grate against assertions that she gives a voice to both the joy and desperation of America’s hardest-hit citizens. The signs usually refer to these absent subjects by way of pronouns (“We Love Centralia”), and proper names sullied by improper expletives (“Beth is a whore.”). The sign photographs make you wonder, “Where are the people?” Conversely—and more problematically—when faced with Strauss’ portraits of people, you might ask, “What would they say?”
In this universe, where people are denied access to language and inanimate objects do all the talking, Strauss structures her work carefully. Themes such as addiction, desire, American identity and subsistence—which structured her I-95 project—continue in the gallery. But while Strauss may give her subjects a voice, it's important to remember that that voice cannot be said to be their own.
A poignant photograph of a sign that reads, “Everything is Not $1” (2008), is a handy reminder. Not everything is equal; the brutalized prostitute in “Monique Showing Black Eye” likely did not enjoy equal privileges as the gallery visitor who contemplates her image. We don’t all live life with an amputated hand like the man in “Shark Bite” (2008), or with a crack addiction, like the woman smoking in “Camden Crack” (2004). Rather, these discrepancies are reminders that we need to reckon reality against aphorisms. We need to admit that Strauss’ work is not primarily redemptive just because that makes it easier to digest. Such awareness is a good thing.
And yet Strauss must be credited for her conscious efforts to empathize and equalize. A characteristic gesture was her response to someone at the press preview who wanted to purchase a print on the cheap. “Sure,” Strauss said—impressively unfazed by the awkwardness of a reporter attempting to bargain at a press preview—“An inkjet print is $5.”
Through April 22. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. 215.763.8100. philamuseum.org
On the corner of McClellan and Fifth streets in South Philadelphia, a group of young boys pass the afternoon executing daredevil flips off a stack of old throwaway mattresses. A woman driving by, novice photographer Zoe Strauss, glimpses the small bodies somersaulting through the air. Startled, she pulls over, and winds up snapping seven or eight quick photographs.
It’s Thursday morning, and a small group of writers and photographers gather at the back entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Zoe Strauss’ first PMA solo show, Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, kicks off with a dance party next Saturday, Jan. 14. We’re here for a mini tour of the Billboard Project, a re-telling of the “Under I-95” narrative across the cityscape. As of yesterday, 54 billboards featuring Strauss’ photographs have been installed on billboards all over the city.