Sunday, May 06, 2007
Zoe Strauss Under I-95
I went to see Zoe Strauss' massive installation under i-95 yesterday. She does a show under the freeway every year, but I've always missed it for one reason or another. I'm so glad I finally made it.
Zoe Strauss takes photographs of gritty Philly life, and the friend I went to the show with was worried that her I-95 event was going to be like some freaky scene from the movie Pecker. It wasn't an unreasonable analogy.
Zoe, like the hero in Pecker, photographs street life in a city that seems quaint to New York. She's not in Baltimore, but her pictures show Philadelphia, among other things, in all its poverty and roughness. It's not sweet work, but it's funny and humane and absurd, and it's very Philly.
I'm not sure how to explain what I mean by that, but I keep flashing back to a memory I have of a student talking to Zoe about her work this fall. One of my students, a smart, very political guy who I imagine has a more than usually vivid acquaintance with the implications of empty pockets, piped up.
"So I've heard that you COULD sell your work for a whole bunch of money, but you choose not to. Could you EXPLAIN that?"
She did her best. She said that she was going to stop selling to people at reasonable prices because she was a big sellout. He nodded, and then she explained. "No, I'm joking. I want to make art that I can afford. I might go to one of those big galleries, I don't know. But I want to make art that the people in my photos can buy."
It's weird to think about the people at the Whitney Biennial looking at her work. The Whitney is a hell of a white box, and one can imagine pictures of the Philadelphia poor turning into something else- some hideous kind of lawn-jockey accessory in the face of all that big museum money.
She's in a tough position, because her work, and what she's trying to do, is absolutely noble. But the art world isn't. It's partly noble. I hoped that her work would always be able to transcend the hype that gathered around it. But I wasn't sure.
When my friend and I got to the I-95 show, we were completely reassured. It couldn't have been less like a John Waters movie. Partly it was because her work is too good, and partly it was because the space is too large.
The place she does the shows, under the freeway behind a Target, is HUGE. She said in her talk that she'd decided she'd do shows down there for ten years. Until one sees the space one has no idea how insane an undertaking that is- it's like committing to fill half a football field with art every year. She had a million photos in there. And they're all really interesting. The size of the space meant that it was impossible to have any kind of art-scenester thing going in there, and that lots of different kinds of people could and did view the work without feeling uncomfortable.
Plus she gave it all away at the end of the show.
What a freaking genius.