Photographer Zoe Strauss’ latest series is a grim check on American hopelessness.
Black mold lays on thick behind wallpaper at Trump’s foreclosed Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. A gaudy chandelier hangs as a false promise of the American dream. A hyper-contrasty photo of seagulls – shot in color, but starkly monochromatic – feels itchy, fleeting, almost paranoid – a metaphor for getting the f*ck out. Volleyed with photos of crashing waves, submerged roads and dismal beaches, these and other photos in Zoe Strauss’ latest exhibition Madison Avenue at New York City’s Andrea Meislin Projects depict The United States’ political, cultural and economic landscape as rapidly falling apart.
While Strauss’ earlier work focused on the often grim plight of working class Americans, often heavy with portraits of her friends and members of her community in Philadelphia, these new photographs show what’s been left behind. A sense of hopelessness – a wasteland without promise.
I spoke with Strauss about the work, her vision, and where we go from here.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Zoe Strauss.
Jon Feinstein: In the press release, you pose the question: "Are you ready for the flood."
Zoe Strauss: This is a rhetorical statement about the eminence of climate change and the frightening shift in the American political landscape over the past two years.
Feinstein: There's a lot of reference to your 10 years retrospective a few years ago as being "the first half of your career" - which seems so inspiring but sets up a kind of daunting next stage. Did your approach to making work change in these past few years as you dove into the perceived "second half" of your career?
Strauss: Actually no, my approach did not change. It has been the same forever. A period of time of research of theory, and praxis, and at the end of that there’s a format in which I want to produce work. Within that, the work will be very different including not being primarily photographs but it will have the same long-term range of addressing the large thematics in our lives.
Feinstein: Residencies have become an important part of your recent practice...
Strauss: For ten years (I-95) was based around site specificity and for Commencement the end product will be a series of books which are intended to move about the world in whatever way they do. Residencies are an integral part of thinking about how my work might move around in the world related to where I am at that moment.
Feinstein: Where does the title "Madison Avenue" come from?
Strauss: Madison Avenue literally comes from where the gallery is. And also Chris Klatell told me to call it that.
Feinstein: The work I've seen from this show feels like the failure of the American dream and its pretensions. Garishness meets black mold -- the stuff that hides below the facade of gold and glitz. Can you talk a bit about this and why it's important for you? Also, have you seen the "Chandeliers" skits from Saturday Night Live from around a decade ago? Comical as the skit is, something about it feels like a parallel to this work. What do you think?
Strauss: I have an anecdote that I think makes the most sense for this. I showed my next door neighbor the work I was putting in the show as we had been talking about the horrors that have come from the Trump administration. Endlessly. And when she was looking at the photographs she exclaimed “Oh my god chandeliers! “ And I thought that was very telling. They are an indicator of class status. And somehow we all know that.
Feinstein: The photos were made across the United States - how does specific location fit into it all?
Strauss: With the exception of the photograph of the Trump Plaza sign going up (1987), all of the photographs were made because I went to specific locations. Except for that one, all were made because I wanted to photograph in those locations at those times. None were incidental. In that sense the geography was a driving factor in deciding the syntax of installation of Madison Avenue.
Feinstein: Re: your "ten years work" you were quoted referring to it as "an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life" - do you think this applies to your current work?
Strauss: Yes it does – but my current work is more expansive in scale. It is about being human during a change in epoch.
Feinstein: Where are you personally in all of this work?
Strauss: I am in every part of it.
Feinstein: You mention the idea of being human in a change of epoch – I read this as a positive, encouraging, and optimistic glimmer of hope, yet much of the work (I've seen!) feels dark and foreboding. Is there a layer of hope in these pictures?
Strauss: Absolutely. While we are in a particularly dire time, my overall project of Commencement is very hopeful. This unsettling time of rapid climate change-related issues and Trump's presidency make it uncomfortable for all of us and dangerous for most of us. But Commencement has great hope because we have to adapt, and we will.
Feinstein: There's less (or no) images of people in these photos, which seems like a shift from much of your earlier work. Instead, there's the evidence of human presence, detritus, etc.
Strauss: The full answer is long and complicated, so I will give you the shorter version for now. It's time for us to figure out how we are going to adapt to the major changes we have to address -- not just in the moment but for the rest of my lifespan. It's setting the stage for our reclamation of space