Sandra Straus

Smart Gallery

It’s “Parents Night” at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, and Sandra Straus walks into her youngster’s sixth-grade social studies class. On the bulletin board are rows of notebook-paper sheets; the assignment was to “make a million marks.”

Noting that the “children’s demonstration expresses how I feel as much as any other projects I’ve done,” Straus transferred 115 of the assignment papers out of that social studies context and into an art gallery. Behind the gallery’s permanent, classical sculpture case, the notebook-paper sheets are unexpected, immediate, and refreshingly direct.

All of Straus’s recent work has demonstrated the “inside” of symbols: how their too-many-times, dried-out conventions take on new, personalized meanings in a spontaneous, real-life situation. A symbol is removed from the realm of blurry “Sure-I-know-what-that-means” cognition, removed from “Human Values,” “Art,” “The American Dream,” “Young Love,” “Insanity,” “Expert,” and used as a standard against which to discern the attitudes and intentions of individual people.

For example. Symbolic Idea: an abstract mathematical unit—“A Million”—signifying a very large or indefinitely great number. Actual Inquiry: an array of individually chosen marks by young children not yet adapted to conform to a culture. Result: One boy’s million was stamped in parallel, short lines with a five-line-tally woodblock—made just for the assignment? A budding writer’s million was typed in upper-case “Z’s.” A calligrapher’s million was sketched in oblique, black-ink traces. A Surrealist automaton’s million was obsessively worked out in purple and green crayon on yellow paper. Vertical symmetries, overall patterns, and random blotches. But did any child reach “A Million?” 10,035, 16,731, 71,622, 2,090, 24,860, 1,400, 7,530. . . .

Characteristically, in Straus’s presentations, the theme is reinforced by a transient, often nonchalant use of various media hand-tinted nylon “scroll pages,” linen rolled in tubes, collaged parchment hung off ceiling hooks, and, recently, audio and video tape.

At Artemesia Gallery, her new video-documentary, Earthmother, has as its nemesis “Womanhood,” betokening some kind of purity, propriety, or perfection. Gleefully, “painterly-ly,” play-fully, severely, sensually, obsessively, Straus pats squishy mud onto her Venus-like, nude upper body as an audio of her own two children tells us “What we like and don’t like about Mommy.” “Womanhood” hits the dust as we hear nonritualized particulars, “Mommy scratches her pussy,” “Mommy picks her nose,” “Mommy cries.” And when Straus finally cleans off, her voluptuous “Womanhood” looks different. We have one less Goddess, one more complex human being.

It’s not that Straus is trying to destroy the things with which we need to communicate. It’s more a matter of recognizing that what each individual means by a symbol is something different, and that we overlook what is meaningful when we stomp off with a token, readymade phrase for what we think they think.

––C. L. Morrison