Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ordinary For All That

 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 Philadelphia Museum of Art for a local artist, living or dead.

The curator of photography, Peter Barberie, was not content merely to install the 150 photographs by Strauss in what the museum officially called a "mid-career retrospective".  He and the museum's PR machinery had their own agenda, seizing on the opportunity to market Strauss as a  one-woman outreach program aimed not only at the usual 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 underway with a lavish and raucous opening night dance party attended by thousands.  (See the obligatory YouTube here) Strauss' work was also installed on 54 billboards around town replete with a trolley tour making the rounds.  In addition, an office was set aside at the museum to allow visitors to sit and chat with the photographer.  It all had a carefully planned common touch.

The forty-two year old Strauss took an unorthodox route to the big time.  She had no formal training in either art or photography, beginning her public career by mounting photographs she'd taken in the adjacent neighborhoods on the support columns beneath I-95.  "Invitations" to this ultimate open studio went out to the hood by word-of-mouth, flyers and the internet and the show became an instant sensation and annual event.  Strauss even sold photo-copies of the pictures for $5 a piece.

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?

Strauss' photographs fall into four general categories:  portraits, the urban environment, signage, and graffiti.  Nearly all the images were made in Philadelphia with occasional forays to the hinterlands.  With rare exception the subject is smack dab in the middle of the frame.  Everything is meant to be simple and honest.  And it is.  Lots of people in tank tops with tattoos. Endless dilapidated store fronts seen 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' work.

The overriding approach here is of straight forward description and relentless cataloging.  There is nothing particularly artful about what she does.  Indeed, given her outsider origins it isn't surprising Strauss eschews artifice, considered composition or handsome prints, focusing solely on content, specifically the downtrodden and decay..  The work certainly isn’t original, nor is it particularly imaginative (apart from the I-95 venue).  If her 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.  Strauss is empathic but apart from her subjects, those looking at the pictures are more likely to feel inured from overexposure.

Did Strauss deserve such unprecedented exposure and treatment on the merits of the work?   I'm afraid not.  There is no mistaking her sincerity, but the work fails to challenge our preconceptions or expectations or to engage us in any discovery.  Strauss' photographs are like snapshots in other peoples' albums;  we recognize them for what they are but we cannot know the stories behind them.  More to the point,  Strauss does not enlighten us or compel us to understand more. 

Since the curator considered this a mid-career treatment, one has to wonder what Strauss will do in the second half.  The guess here is more of the same.

(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review.  Click here to see it.)

No comments: