Samantha Sharf | Reality within a frame
Elements of Style | Sometimes art is the most effective form of protest
February 1, 2012, 1:42 am·
Elements of Style
Photographer Zoe Strauss’ Philadelphia is not full of historical architecture, green lawns or familiar faces on Locust Walk. It is made up of mattress-strewn streets, tattooed bodies and a mysterious sign exclaiming, “EVERYTHING IS NOT $1.00”.
“Zoe Strauss: Ten Years,” a exhibition featuring roughly 150 photographs, opened in January at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In an introduction at the entrance to the exhibition, Strauss is quoted describing her work as “an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life.”
Most of Strauss’ images are shot in Philadelphia, where she grew up and lives. To me, these images reveal dark features of a supposedly familiar place. Although I live here, the city captured by Strauss is one I do not recognize. It is dirty, broken and angry.
But perhaps this is the point. These photos expose painful details that many of us would miss even if they were right in front of us. According to the latest Census, 25.1 percent of Philadelphia residents live below poverty level.
Like this statistic, Strauss’ images are troubling. But they are beautiful as well, making it difficult to know how to react.
In one photo, a deeply wrinkled woman from Camden, New Jersey, lifts her left eye to the camera while her right eye droops toward the floor. She has deep cuts on her arm. But her glassy eyes are an arresting blue that perfectly matches the shirt of her younger female companion. In another shot, a browning corsage lies on a non-descript patch of pavement. It’s potential for beauty only hinted at.
Strauss’ project is complicated by the exhibition’s attempt to bring the photos back to their source through the “Billboard Project.” Fifty-four of Strauss’ photographs are on display on billboards across Philadelphia.
As these two interconnected projects break down how we conceive of a museum, they also form a link to Strauss’ history. The artist used to set up daylong exhibitions under Interstate-95 in South Philly. In the midst of this 10-year project, Strauss’ work was featured at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art. At that time, she said, “I am interested in producing photographs that are both a story unto themselves and part of a cohesive body of work designed to be viewed in public spaces.”
Art can put us face to face with things we might not otherwise encounter. It is then our responsibility to make some sort of sense of these foreign things.
Strauss discussed this and other concerns of socially and politically aware artists on Saturday in the museum. She conversed with Grammy Award-winning musician Steve Earle in front of a motley crew of museum-goers for the second of four events in “The Art and Social Transformation Lecture Series.”
As the title suggests, these conversations deal with art, activism and art as activism.
The pair free styled about their chosen areas of engagement. Earle took on the death penalty, while Strauss’ main concern was welfare and housing rights. It was clear the two are passionate about their causes.
For nearly 30 minutes, their artistic occupations hardly entered the conversation. (Except when Earle admitted that before getting clean, he thought activism was driving up to a benefit in a limo, playing a set and then returning to the limo for a heroin fix). When they got down to discussing art, Strauss quoted Earle as once saying, “making art in America is a political statement.”
This lead me to wonder, do you need to be a politically minded person to make political art? And if all art is political, do you need to be an art lover to appreciate the message?
I grappled with Strauss’ images as I walked back to campus along the Schuylkill River. How did a 42-year-old woman convince an overweight middle-aged man to pose naked in a motel room? How did another man come to have five tattoos on his face?
And how do these images relate to my Philadelphia and the lives of Nike-clad runners who zoom past me? Is this activism? As I crossed the Walnut Street Bridge and approach the entrance to I-76, I spot clothing scattered beneath the highway.
Art can and should be political. Unlike a traditional protest, Strauss’ photographs take time to reveal their cause. The contrast between her work as museum-worthy art and the gritty reality contained within it forces a sheltered Penn student like me to question my version of Philadelphia.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.