Thursday, October 16, 2008
The girl in the photo is standing ankle deep in a kiddie pool, hand on her waist, her body awkwardly crooked in a white one-piece swimsuit, hair windswept, eyes sullen, skin freckled. She’s in the backyard.
Behind her a luminescent white sheet hangs on a clothesline like enormous angel wings. Behind that, dingy grain silos rise like an industrial skyline.
“I didn’t know at the time that I was recreating Botticelli’s Birth of Venus,’’ says the photographer, Angela Strassheim, of the work.
It takes time to reorient the eyes to the scenes that make up Strassheim’s photo exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art-La Mirada. They are deceptively simple, highly arranged, layered with meaning and objectively observed. They capture seemingly ordinary scenes from middle-American homes, populated mostly by children and teens, in strong colors and with intimate scrutiny. They are arranged in two connected bodies of work that, together, Strassheim loosely refers to as the “House” phase.
Each “phase” opens with a photograph of a discreet home interior that contains no people, as if the viewer were an invisible stalker, roving through the homes and yards until coming upon the unwary inhabitants.
They include “Storytelling,” which finds a father regaling his three cherubic sons with a story before bedtime, a compound bow on his knee and hunting regalia crowded into every space of the boys’ bedroom. “Father and Son,” a keystone piece for the exhibit (along with the unintended Botticelli homage, “Alicia in the Pool,” looks in on a father, standing over and combing his son’s roguish red hair into a conforming part. Dressed in identical, starched white shirts and red ties, the father seems to be grooming his son into his own image.
“I remember my father combing my brother’s hair, meticulously, to get ready for church,” Strassheim says. “One Christmas, I went to visit my brother, and I saw him doing that to his own son. It just brought me back. People should see this work first.”
Strassheim identifies many of the works as being autobiographical; the bulk of the exhibit focuses on girls. In “Removing Make-up,” a boy in a car sits in the driveway of a home to wait for his date, seen in a lighted window, being forced by her father to remove makeup from her face. The house in the photo belonged to her family during her junior high years.
“I always wondered if [my dates] saw that,” she muses of her own father’s disapproval and removal of her makeup. “It takes away your confidence.”
Some recurring themes that arise in varying degrees are religion and family, innocence and sexuality, imagination and self-image. Sometimes she throws combinations of these themes into uneasy relationships with each other. A teen girl in another photograph sits reclined on a mattress, wearing the sheet like a toga, her bare thigh jutting free. Her hair is done like Princess Leia from Star Wars and the walls behind her are stacked with shelves of male action figures. It contains strands of religion and innocence; the pose also, like much of Strassheim’s work, is implicitly sexual.
“There can be as many interpretations as people looking at it,” says E. Michael Whittington, the Museum’s Executive Director. “Not everything is pleasant when an artist is interpreting the world around them. There’s beauty, tension, ugliness. Our hope is that the audience will approach the work on many levels.”
Strassheim completed an MFA in photography at Yale, where she honed a critical eye.
“I can’t enjoy fashion photography anymore; and I wanted to do fashion photography,” she says, citing Diane Arbus as the woman who inspired her to become a photographer; her grandmother as the woman who granted her freedom by not judging her; and film directors Philip Ridley and Larry Clark for inspiration. But it may be her stint as a forensic photographer for a medical examiner that intrigues the most.
“I was told by my aunt and others in my family that I was going to hell,” she recounts, still incredulous. “I lived with fear of dying. For me, I needed to see a dead body. My father gave me the gift of letting me oversee an autopsy. I’ll never forget the man: He was a suicide, electrical cord around the neck. I had to know. That there was nothing there to fear.”
This show marks the first solo museum exhibition of the artist’s work. Planning for the show began in 2005 when MMA’s Chief Curator Marcelle Polednik saw Strassheim’s work in New York.
What’s next for the artist? “I’m trying to get out of the ‘House,’ ” she says.
Angela Strassheim’s exhibit is at the Monterey Museum of Art-La Mirada, 720 Via Mirada, Monterey, 11am-5pm Wed-Sat, 1-4pm Sun. Free/members and children under 12. 372-5477, www.montereyart.org.