JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 color photographs, in white frames and exhibited against four white walls. All are archival inkjet prints and uneditioned. Most of the images are dated between 2012-2017, although one example is from 1987. Sizes vary between 4×6 and 14×21 inches, with the majority being 12×8 inches or the reverse. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The election of Donald Trump rocked the foundations of the U.S. as few events have since September 11, 2001. Many of us have opened our eyes each morning since Nov. 8, 2016 not quite believing that a corrupt, ignorant, dictatorial, race-baiting, pathetic wreck of a human being was chosen by nearly half the country to lead the Free World—and that most of those voters continue to cheer and support him.
Artists and writers were no exception in hoping these last two years might have been a bad dream. Historians may one day want to consult the Instagram feeds of Nicole Eisenman and A.L Steiner, Teju Cole and Laura Poitras—featured in last year’s Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists at the Met—to sense the gathering horror and despair felt by many in the months leading up to Trump’s victory.
Zoe Strauss’ Madison Avenue is another artifact of that anger and incredulity. She has combined her scorn for the crass monetary values that Trump has promoted throughout his career, evident here in his disastrous ventures as a hotel and casino operator in Atlantic City, N.J., with her fury against the right-wing campaign to discredit the idea of climate change. Her project attempts to document—and sound the alarm about—the warming oceans, changing weather patterns, and worldwide deluge that she (and many scientists) believe is going to overwhelm the planet in the next 50 years.
She imagines that warning us about this global suicide pact will occupy the second half of her creative life—and serve as a bookend to I-95, the searing, epic installation about her life in Philadelphia that summarized the first half of her acclaimed career.
Most of the photographs here are modest in scale and ambition. They were taken around the Louisiana delta, in places still recovering from the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and along the coast of New Jersey, which suffered both from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and from the downturn of the casino business in Atlantic City.
Strauss’ thoughts about Trump’s business practices in the resort town aren’t hard to read: she detects infestations and rot throughout his shuttered properties. Two chandeliers, shot looking up from below in the lobby of the Trump Plaza, are adorned with sticky yellow fly strips hanging from the glass mandalas (2015). Behind the ripped-away patch of wallpaper in a room at the Trump Taj Mahal are florets of black mold (2017).
In the last years, many apartment buildings in the U.S. that once boasted Trump’s name on their facades have as a gesture of protest removed any trace of association with him. Strauss has photographs from 2015 and 2016—of the derelict Trump Place—where his logo or lettering vanished for less political reasons: because these locations, promoted as prime real estate, went bust.
Trump suffered no lasting financial harm from these ill-fated investments, while the bankers and bond holders who had bought into his spiel took a bath. He seems to be legally protected from his financial follies, and mentally so insulated from reality, that the pointed effect of a barbed critique like Strauss’ is negligible. Unlike President Xi, who was reportedly so upset by memes identifying his portly frame and Winnie the Pooh’s that he banned the cartoon in China this summer, Trump seems impervious to satire (unless the satirist is Barack Obama.)
Some anomalies in this show may make more sense in an expanded version of the completed project. The largest photograph (2012) is a palm-trees-and-blue-sky portrait of the Sarasota mansion owned by Katherine Harris, the Secretary of State for Florida who aided George W. Bush in his counting of ballots during the aftermath of the 2000 election against Al Gore. The peach and beige doorway at the Metropolitan Club in New York City (2016) also seems out of place, as does a flock of birds lifting off from a landfill in Louisiana (2014).
The most potent symbols here are the dark speckled lines marking the height of the flood waters in New Jersey or Louisiana, and the sagging piles of wall-paper littering these waterlogged or deconstructed rooms. This is condemned property, destroyed either by the storm surges of nature or fickle capital.
Strauss presents these places as devoid of any personality—as cruddy interior landscapes of sheetrock and mildewed carpet, pink marble and golden drapes. That doesn’t mean, though, that one can’t wish she had included a few personal interactions. The portraits of friends, family, and strangers in I-95 were memorable. As she continues to document the inequalities plaguing the nation and the galloping crisis of the planet, it should be interesting to watch this tough-minded humanist—one of the leading photographers working today—figure out how to represent the daily struggles of the people being displaced by forces that can’t be bribed or voted out of office. I look forward to updates on the next phase of her project.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $800 (for the three 6x8s) to $3200, with the majority selling for $1800. Strauss’ work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.