Prying Religion, Sexuality, Self-Identity and Forensics. A Conversation with Angela Strassheim
Since 2002, Angela Strassheim’s photographs have probed female identity, family, religion, and memory with unflinching grit. Her inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial: Day For Night was a break-out moment that launched her career and a media buzz about her work. Her photographic prints have been featured in half a dozen other museum shows, including her 2012 solo show, “Evidence,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. With refreshing transparency, Strassheim talked with me about her work.
By Stephen Knudsen
Stephen Knudsen - Your 2006 Untitled (Self-Portrait in Bus) has the locked-in composition of a Weston nude, but that beauty seems to turn in on itself. Being a self-portrait, questions of feminist ardor in reclaiming one‘s own body and identity arise. You place your marked body (the tattoo) under the bus‘ arches and windows, with one pane damaged by a bullet hole. Refracted light on the wall and a nod to infinite space (the faint mountainscape) complete the composition. Add the context of earlier work that addresses religion directly, and one starts to see a charge of content in the self-portrait. Would you speak to the assembling of this scene and the personal meaning in the work?
Angela Strassheim - I couldn’t pass up this moment. I was going through a difficult time and felt over-tired and at wit’s end, as I had just completed three straight months of photographing for the Pause series. The bus in the middle of this desert, at a yurt colony in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, called out to me, and I so desperately wanted to lie down for a nap in the warmth and security of this fractured bus that was laid to rest in this same spot over 20 years prior. I wanted to claim it somehow for myself and melt into it. The tattoo marks that it is me and claims it as my self-portrait. It’s not a common tattoo, but one of a praying mantis that I got when I was 23. I was interested in this idea of dreaming of a better place out in the far distance, as I was in a very confusing time in my life with a lot of unanswered questions about my future. Looking back now, from this point on, I began steps for changing my life and seeking a new one. My skin has three layers of tan lines that reminded me of Neapolitan ice cream. The honesty in the flaws of my skin was important to me in the picture. The image was composed so easily and simply and sets itself up to be a beautiful formal nude.
S.K. - In your Left Behind series and in Untitled (Congregation), you address some of the ill-fitting religious doctrine that you negotiated growing up. In Congregation, you have let a large swath of blackness converge toward the distant boy and two flanking men. Then, as a counterpoint, a small girl is in a world of her own. What were some of your experiences growing up in a deeply conservative and religious framework?
A.S. - This is not the church I grew up in, but it is the church that my parents and other family members now belong to and it’s the same denomination that I grew up in. All of these churches are very similar in layout. I have a strong memory from when I was nine years old, sitting on a stoop outside the church during lunch break and looking up through the trees and wondering, “Why am I here, experiencing this life that doesn’t agree with me?” That was the first memory of me really wondering why this family and why this religion. Jesus never made any sense to me, yet one is supposed to learn from one’s parents. In Left Behind, I was interested in the idea of family passing down from one generation to another certain traditions. You can also see this in Untitled (Father and Son). In Congregation, I chose to photograph this moment of a father singing and leading the people with his son at this side, showing him the way. I believe in this idea of passing on your ideals in life, but I am perplexed by how we all become our own individual selves regardless of the upbringing that our parents attempt to instill in us throughout our childhood. I am always looking for the one, usually a girl, who seems to be off in another place within this framework because that is how I always saw myself. This group of images was the first that I made in preparation for the Left Behind series. I used a point-and-shoot film camera with no assisted lighting. This was sort of an exploration of seeing and comprehending my upbringing, looking mostly at my brother’s family, as they had four children at the time, and I saw so much of my father in him and how he was raising his children in this environment. This allowed me to go back in time and wrestle with my own memories of childhood related to this strict born-again upbringing.
S.K. - The title Left Behind, of course, can imply the rapture chronicled in the Book of Revelation, but it also has currency in defining your position growing up. Father and Son was one of your Left Behind works, exhibited in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Would you tell us more about your choice of the title Left Behind for the series?
A.S. - Left Behind is also a book series by Tim LaHaye about the rapture. However, to me, this body of work also refers to those who are left behind after a death in the family. We work our entire lives putting together a home that is a reflection of who we are, how we live and see ourselves. Once we die, it all gets split up and most of it thrown in the dumpster. The title is about how the living carry on and another generation follows certain family traditions. Father & Son was extremely important to this series, and it was difficult to make this photograph work in the way that I saw it in my mind. It took a couple of attempts to discover that moving a sink to the doorway and framing the doorway as a mirror would allow for the believability of this image. My brother and his oldest son know this position so well; their eyes know just where to position themselves.
S.K. - Your desire to make work about the conflict of origins and personal identity has not alienated you from family members, such as your father. You showed The Spanking to your father before you exhibited it publicly, though it does not actually depict your father. I thought this familial showing of the picture was emblematic of both closeness and an inner conflict of sorts. Would you share your feelings concerning this image?
A.S. - Whether or not this picture is the “truth,” it speaks more about how I felt and it rings “true” to me, which inevitably brings up conversation and hopefully a healing process with those closest to me. I think the reading of this picture was tough for my father because it would make him look like he abused me, and of course, the question is exactly what I am asking. What is healthy and what is not?
S.K. - In The Spanking, wide-open windows and an open door amplify inherent vulnerability. Would you speak further to the personal signifiers in this work and the challenges involved in making such a charged piece?
A.S. - The doorway with knob in foreground is about having an observer, in this case my mother, who plays the passive bystander. The jeans and underwear pulled down raise questions about my age at the time of being spanked. I was aware of those exposed body parts and, for myself, needed to explore this act from another point of view. We all make different choices in being parents, and at a certain point we must realize that it all comes from a loving place, hopefully. Why would my parents think there was anything wrong with this act? This is what they learned growing up. Things aren’t always as they seem. That is what I infer in most of my photographs from Left Behind and Pause.
The Spanking was a tough picture to arrange. This was sort of the beginning of going outside of my family to make certain photographs. As Father and Son was the grounding photograph for the Left Behind series, Spanking was the grounding for the Pause series. It was tough to find a girl just 18 who would allow herself to be in this position with a stranger and even more difficult to find a father figure who would allow his face to be shown and actually spank someone so hard over and over to get the right moment of impact that I was looking for. This photograph was made in this “father’s” own bedroom. It felt familiar enough to me.
S.K. - Your work Untitled (Isabel at the Window) brings to mind John Berger‘s male-gaze writings on voyeurism. Would you share that back-story about this image?
A.S. - Again here, I am making a photograph to explore my own memories in my attempts to see that situation from another point of view. I do this a lot as a way to grapple with the memories of my past that confuse me and have always disturbed my conscience. You find this also in Girls in Pickup, Removing Makeup and The Spanking. These girls are all surrogate for me.
Isabel at the Window has a great story behind it. There was a cute boy who would come for the summer months to live with his grandparents next door to us. All the girls fawned over him. I was the lucky one that got the kiss at the end of the summer going into sixth grade. The night before he left to head back to Iowa for the school year, he whispered that he would leave me something behind the bushes below the front windows of our house and that I should look for it early the next morning before anyone else would discover it. I woke up early and saw that he was already long gone but left a note wrapped like a paper football with drawings of weapons and text reading “for Angela’s eyes only.” I walked around the back of the house and into the woods and opened it where I could be alone. I peeled back several layers of tightly wrapped notebook paper to discover a hand-written note describing how most nights he would watch me in my upstairs bathroom window after everyone went home to sleep. I was mortified, as we didn’t keep curtains on our windows in the back of the house because there was only a forest behind us. One wouldn’t think there would be onlookers. I always wondered what he saw from where he stood. Did he climb a tree or just view from the ground? I made this photograph with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a 1970 book by Judy Blume in mind. Only I wanted the photograph to play with the idea of the chance that the girl could possibly know and therefore put on a show. If I had known that he was interested in me, and that he was watching me, would I have played along? I’ll never know, but this image gives me some satisfaction. Our family moved that next year, and I never saw or heard from this boy again.
S.K. - I can also imagine some of your work connected to the legacy of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Catherine Opie and other artists who touch intimacy and gender-role issues. Have any of those artists impacted you?
A.S. - I wouldn’t say that these three had much of an impact on me. Cindy Sherman a little bit, but mostly her grotesque series, which is different than most of her typical portraits. I have been inspired by other artists such as Jeff Wall, Emmet Gowin, and Eric Fischl. Other influences have been Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. There are others, but that’s a start. I would say that my inspiration rarely comes from other photographers. It’s usually painters or parent magazines or newspaper stories.
S.K. - It is interesting that you mention Eric Fischl. In meeting with a small group of my students a few years ago, he challenged them to increase the urgency in their work and to “quell the inner demons“ that tell an artist that “you cannot do that.“ Do you identify with that struggle in making work, and what else draws you to Fischl’s painting?
A.S. - Yes, I do agree with that. Even with my own students I try to push them to really explore where pain comes from in their lives, to make work about things that really matter to them, not just pretty pictures. Fischl’s works challenges the viewer. I feel like he brings the male psyche into his work in a profound and honest way. I also think of the painter Balthus. I respond to and admire his work. His paintings are really what it feels like to be a girl, a woman with the male gaze forever upon us, the perversity of it.
S.K. - You were a forensic photographer before you went to Yale for your M.F.A. You have said that facing death in your job negotiated you through some disturbing memories of your conservative religious upbringing. Joseph Campbell‘s Power of Myth points to evidence of religion first emerging in the form of burial rites. Cognition of fact (death) gets linked to faith (religion). Was there something healing in facing real death rather than an abstract notion of it? Can you explain how your job in forensics helped you reset your identity and your art?
A.S. - From an early age, I knew I wanted to be buried like the Jews bury their dead. This was always a fear of mine: dying and what grave I would end up in controlled by my parents. Did I do anything about it? No, except constantly tell them to put me in a pine box with no formaldehyde out in the woods somewhere and mark my grave with a rock that only they would recognize. Anywhere away from a family grave would suffice. I was told by my grandfather and still am to this day, along with a handful of relatives, that I will go to hell unless I ask Jesus into my life and surrender to him. I, therefore, always lived cautiously; for example, choosing to be the designated driver instead of joining my peers in high school doing drugs and getting wasted. I always thought that if I did drugs, with my luck, I’d be the one to overdose and die. Seeing a corpse and working in the morgue helped me come to terms with what death meant to me and to be able to accept that there is a time and place for each of us that is really out of our control for the most part. I strongly believe that when our time comes, it is because it is our time and we can’t escape that. I believe in a higher power that oversees all things and knows all things. I believe in God. I don’t know what happens to our spirit, but I do know that when we lie there without a soul, our body is no longer ours as we know it. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m OK with that. I haven’t read Campbell’s Power of Myth, but it’s an interesting discovery and it makes a lot sense. Each religion has its own strict rules in dealing with the handling of the dead.
In Miami, I trained for three years as a certified forensic photographer. I earned my official badge and all. That experience, and the jobs that followed, not only gave me a firsthand ‘visual account’ of disease, which was amazing and irreplaceable, but it also gave me some key technical skills that I was lacking from my undergraduate college education. I’ve seen so many different kinds of ways that people die that I have sufficed my creative mind’s curiosity. The experience also taught me to pay attention to the entire frame and not just the one point of interest in making photographs.
S.K. - As someone who has experienced what Campbell calls religion‘s ‘mask of eternity,’ do you personally see any way that organized Western religion can be healthier in its reach to something bigger than ourselves? What is your position on the two glass ceilings concerning women in the church-one being the male-dominated leadership and the other being the lack of a fuller measure of the feminine in defining the Almighty?
A.S. - I feel that women have to discover a way to find the power in themselves within their religion. Religion is male-dominated for sure, and hugely so, but women are an essential part of life and religions’ growth and future. I am extremely grateful that I was able to choose where I felt I belonged and with what people I connect, and I understand that this is an extremely rare thing to be able to do. Usually, it is not a choice, but a forced way of life handed down though family. I have a very traditional side to myself. To be a woman, one has to embrace all aspects of what that encompasses and make the many strengths of that work. There are also many advantages to being a woman, I feel, especially today.
S.K. - Your Evidence prints were recently featured at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. You researched over a hundred homes where familial murders had occurred and persuaded some new owners to give you access. In Evidence #11 a television-that great fictional fluorescence-contrasts with light made from real violence, from real DNA and hemoglobin. Would you tell us more about your impulse to make the Evidence series?
A.S. - First and foremost, it is important to understand that in all of these situations that I’ve photographed, the relationships started out as love. I started this body of work because of a familial murder that hit really close to home for me, and I couldn’t shake it. I had to get access and begin. I knew that this would be an important body of work for me to delve into at some point in my life, but I didn’t know when. It really found me. The tragic destruction of this nation’s economy in 2008 increased the number of these types of crimes. Long after the homicides, despite the cleaning, repainting and subsequent re-habitation of these homes, the BlueStar® solution activates the physical memory of blood through its contact with the remaining DNA proteins on the walls. The Evidence images are long exposures-from 10 minutes to one hour-with minimal ambient night light pouring in from the crevices of windows and doors, capturing the physical presence of DNA as a lurid glow. These images remain a memorial to the heroic person who fought to live.
S.K. - I hear that you are involved in a new project. Are you are at liberty to share details of it yet?
A.S. - Not in specific terms. I’m wrestling with ‘pretty’ work again that has a dark undertone. I have also been going through the many images that I have made over the past four years in Israel. They are extremely personal and telling of transitions in my life.
S.K. - Any parting words about anything else new in your life?
A.S. - My husband and I are expecting our first child this summer. I’m sure this experience will have a huge impact on my work, as it’s always about the domestic realm, family and religion. I’m excited to see what such a major life experience produces, looking ahead.
Stephen Knudsen is a professor of painting at Savannah College of Art and Design and exhibits work internationally. He is a regular contributor to NY Arts Magazine, Chicago Art Magazine and The SECAC Review Journal. He is also a co-developer of Image Comparison Aesthetics for theartstory.org and developer of Fourth Dimension Color Theory and the Dual Color Wheel, both of which are used widely in universities.