Rebekah Templeton Gallery: Becoming Something Else, Jan 12-Feb 18, 2012
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Zoe Strauss, Ten Years, Jan 14-April 22, 2012
By James Rosenthal
With the leaps in digital imagery one would think the role of photography would have changed dramatically in function. Strangely, the use of photography remains roughly the same, albeit multiplied and dumbed down. Start with the low end of the spectrum: the ubiquitous iPhone documents every banal act of the owner who takes images destined for publishing on Facebook. Like it! The mainstream use of the digital snapshot has created a vastly inflated version of the old time aesthetic controversy that changed the course of art ever since photography’s invention in 1839; the photograph replacing art and painting! On the other side of the spectrum (as the pixel shrank), high quality digital printing has superseded the dated chemical process. Most photographers no longer produce their own prints, once a key part of the optical craft.
Having said this, two current shows demonstrate the gap between vernacular photography and MFA grads of a theoretical bent: Zoe Strauss at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an intimate show at Rebekah Templeton titled: Becoming Something Else. Todd Keyser’s work, Cave Painting a seems to illustrate this gap deliberately. Creepy, random images of caves from the web are manipulated with paint or its digital equivalent. Similarly, Micah Danges makes dramatic graphic removals from his photographic images, disorienting the viewer. An intricate cut-out digital print, Metaplasia by Leigh Van Duzer, becomes curled and sculptural, leaving a fragile cast shadow on the nearby wall. Anita Allyn asks the million-dollar question in her installation titled +-: what is real and what is an image? Her inflated grey balloons form shadows beneath a print of colored balloons, creating a reverse trompe-l’oeil. Genius!
In contrast, Zoe Strauss – who is heading for a knighthood – shoots, reporter like, street images straight from the hip. The concept is unchallenging for the viewer: many years ago, edgy photographers Nan Goldin and William Eggleston made work like this possible. Strauss’ work is not unlike Reality Television: the pictures make strong human connections by pulling heartstrings. With superlative reviews and the pictures blown up mural-size on advertising billboards around town, it is clear Strauss is a beloved chronicler of the city. A real narrative is there waiting, often a tragedy in the making like her renowned picture Mattress Flip. One of the fun-loving boys is later killed.
What strikes me as ironic is the difference in popularity between the work of the ‘untrained’ Strauss and young contemporary artists trying desperately to be noticed in a struggling gallery above Girard Avenue. This is not to say Strauss isn’t contemporary. Nor are all MFA grads avant garde or superior to street artists. But what is popular is often retrograde. The question is which is better art. The fact that Strauss is sharing the bill with blockbuster Van Gogh (who was never in any way conventional) is telling. Van Gogh may be ultra-popular, but you cannot dispute his massive contribution to modern painting.
James Rosenthal is a writer, educator and artist. He has written art criticism since 1999 and is currently working on a novel, Work Shy, a spoof about the Art World.