Monday, August 6, 2012

Zoe Strauss, 10 Years: A Slideshow @ Bruce Silverstien

Zoe Strauss has been killing it of late. Her billboard project in Philadelphia, which ran in conjunction with her retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was a populist masterpiece. The billboards and her previous impromptu shows of ink-jet prints under I-95 that were distributed to people who showed up, were the closest she has come to art in traditional sense. Unfortunately despite some recent noticeable improvement in her image making, her pictures still feel formally simple, lacking any real use of light or perceivable understanding of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional medium (but in her defense the Andrea Rosen summer show only just went up). What is more, she occasionally tries to compensate for these deficiencies by making overtly artistic pictures by reducing the world to a flat assemblage of two-dimensional shapes that would be high art only to intro-level photography students.

Strauss lacks the visual grace and dignified skill of some other untrained straight photographers, who choose to embrace social issues. Like Alex Webb, Gilles Peress and a hoard of old-guard Magnum types. Despite her weaknesses (not to mention her inability to edit down her output), she has put together a stunning body of pictures that bring an ever-isolated art-going public face to face with the dirty, horrifying, and stunningly unembarrassed inner city poverty. A population that no longer has the wherewithal to be within passing distance of most Manhattan residents. What is startling about her work is that the poverty isn’t ennobling, it doesn’t form a close-knit community, it doesn’t make people more authentic, it just beats people up and turns them into something distressingly foreign. While not reducing the people to a victimized other, she proves herself ale to pull this effect out of the world with her flat and plainspoken visual style. Those blunt and dumbly center-weighted frames have found a perfect subject matter. There is none of the visual poetics or black and white affectations that mitigate so much of the best of photojournalistic pictures, where things that are hard to look at are seen only through the best looking of eyes. It’s hard to argue that Strauss even has the flair for color of a Nan Goldin. She just has a great pair of eyes and the ability to push the button, as Lisette Model once suggested, when you feel the most uncomfortable. I also suspect she isn’t being weighed down by a visual ethic of the previous generation, which may have had more qualms about making a career of showing poverty as an ugly fact of society. What separates her work from conventional photojournalism is her ability to match a formal language to the understanding of her subject matter. That separates her work from photojournalism and puts her right smack in the history of photography’s sweet spot between practical application and art.

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