Zoe Strauss, a Philadelphia photographer with a growing international reputation, is the subject of a major exhibition that opens on January 14 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Zoe Strauss: Ten Years is a mid-career retrospective of this acclaimed artist’s work, representing the first critical assessment of her decade-long project to exhibit annually in a public space beneath Interstate-95 (I-95) in South Philadelphia. The exhibition will include 170 prints and a selection of artist-created slideshows, one of which will be projected on the Museum’s exterior façade during the exhibition’s opening week.
Additional images by the artist will be displayed on 39 billboards located throughout the city from Manayunk to West Philadelphia and from Northeast Philadelphia to I-95 South, extending the reach of the exhibition into many of the neighborhoods where Strauss has worked and from which she continues to draw inspiration.
“It is always welcome to encounter a gifted artist who is not only fully engaged with her world and all of its complexities—political, economic, social, and above all personal—but also determined to make something new and compelling of these realities,” notes Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “To share this with others requires a strong sense of commitment and a spirit of generosity, and it is fair to say that Strauss is well endowed with both. She has, from the very beginning of her career, focused both on social change and on the intersection of art and the public realm. Each of these is central to the way she defines her life and her work as an artist.”
Inspired by other photographers of the American scene, including William Eggleston, Walker Evans, and Nan Goldin, Strauss’ art has focused primarily on the fascinating and often disconcerting realities of everyday life. Much of her work has been done in and around Philadelphia, but Strauss has also traveled widely throughout the United States, exploring the South and the West and taking photographs in the aftermath of such catastrophic events as Hurricane Katrina, as seen in Mom Were OK, (2005), Biloxi, Mississippi.
A critical focus of the exhibition and the accompanying book will be a thorough assessment of Strauss’ I-95 project. Between 2001 and 2010, she mounted annual one-day exhibitions of her photographs under an elevated section of the interstate highway that runs through South Philadelphia, close to the banks of the Delaware River. In an area roughly the size of a football field, she affixed her photographs to columns supporting the elevated highway, providing visitors with a map keyed to a list of their titles.
Color photocopies of the exhibited images were available for sale for five dollars, with volunteers manning a sales table and Strauss stationed at a nearby table for signing. These annual installations animated the site with art, commerce, and social interaction, transforming the unused space into a vibrant public setting. The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition will examine how, for Strauss, the contrasting settings of the abandoned urban zone under I-95 and the Museum’s galleries complement and, in an important sense, complete each other as spaces from which to address the city.
“The relationship between the city and the Museum is an important element of the exhibition and an important topic to Strauss herself,” said Peter Barberie, The Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center. “She seeks to generate dialogue between the two, alerting viewers to the significance of the visual arts and of their own lives, and emphasizing their inter-connectedness. The exhibition’s gallery and the related programs will become a hub or a gathering spot, while the billboards and the exhibition’s connection to I-95 encourage broader civic discourse.”
In this spirit, the Museum is planning a broad range of programs, from a DJ dance party to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, to a series of Art After 5 musical events, to lectures, workshops, and public school collaborations.