New York

Zoe Strauss

Silverstein Gallery

Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss’s first New York solo show might be described as the art-world equivalent of Sylvester Stallone’s run up the art-museum steps: a life-affirming, fist-pumping, I am here! performance. (As she elegantly put it, “A super fancy gallery in Chelsea? Fuck yeah! It was awesome.”) But lest the ethos be wholly, or even principally, buoyant, her exhibition’s title, “If you reading this”—culled from a graffiti-plastered wall, captured in the first work on view, which reads in its blunt entirety, IF YOU READING THIS FUCK YOU—expediently brought things down to earth, and, more to the point, back to the street.

That this connection to locality is appropriate is suggested not only by the subject matter of Strauss’s images—by and large composed of present and erstwhile South Philly inhabitants, which is to say, the artist’s neighbors, here captured sloppily kissing in American Face Paint (all works 2001–2006), for example, smoking crack in Camden Crack, or showing scars in Victoria’s Hysterectomy—but also by their typical viewing site and distribution structure. Since 2001, Strauss has been best known for I-95, her annual weekend-long public presentation of laminated photos stuck to piers under a highway overpass at Front and Mifflin streets in Philadelphia. Viewers are encouraged to take shots away with them or to purchase Xerox copies from her website for five bucks each.

As Strauss’s central undertaking, then, I-95 accumulates meanings as it intrudes on other venues. It also assumes multiple forms, ranging from an ever-evolving Nan Goldin–esque slide show mounted in the gallery (and, in a different version, outside on Twenty-fourth Street on the closing night of this show), to oversize digital ink-jet prints, to a wall of pinned-up smaller versions that were swapped for others when sold at Silverstein. All of these are understood as details of the larger I-95 project, seemingly forever in medias res. In Chelsea, Strauss largely made good on the promise of institutionalization and the big, lush, detailed prints that it afforded—but just as one more, different context for the project. Her large-scale pictures betray the deliberateness of her compositions, but formalism in her usage never stands still long enough to congeal into an aesthetic loosened from its representational thrust; portraits of locals and the particularities of their landscapes become Strauss’s activism.

Vernacular architecture, billboards, and commercial signage figure prominently and often offer a humorous counterpoint to an otherwise desolate setting. This is the case with Good Food Here, in which the eponymous slogan and a painted plate of home-style cooking floats above the entrance to an outdoor bathroom. Devastating in a very different way is Marine’s Billboard, in which a gleaming military recruitment ad (featuring an Aryan soldier) crowns a vertical frame into which, stage right, a tired black man on a crutch trespasses. As this scene suggests, Strauss’s photographs, while laden with and ultimately inextricable from their signs of depredation, are still less redeemed than complicated by her solicitude, which, though humane, is far from sentimentalizing.

Another way to say this is that Strauss’s I-95 does not constitute a new “Family of Man.” The photos that Strauss took in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are particularly telling in this regard. Integrated into the corpus are images of mangled blinds, collapsed buildings, and spray-painted messages including the wrenching MOM WERE OK. Installed next to close-ups of bullet-riddled facades and bruised women back in Philadelphia, they make patent that what Katrina exposed is hardly a singular catastrophe but a chronic condition that—despite all the beautiful pictures Strauss shoots—is still hard to see.

Suzanne Hudson