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No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by William Steacy

Immediately upon entering the Silver Eye Photography Center, you come face to face with The Beast.

A 170 foot collage of newspaper clippings, advertisements, and pages torn from the artists’ journal, this piece presents Will Steacy’s investigation of the problems underlying American culture.

This piece dominates the current exhibit at the Silver Eye Photography Center like a many-headed monster, presenting different issues in the form of headlines, which jump out at the viewer much like headlines in an actual newspaper do: ‘Betrayed!’, ‘Immoral’ ,‘Fraud’, ‘Heartbreaking!’.  Steacy’s clippings range from stories involving gun violence and poverty to pop culture, featuring The Monopoly Man, a blood-drenched Carrie, and Freddy Kruger.  Recurring motifs such as skulls and guns create visual touchstones, illustrating the connections Steacy has made between various topics.

Steacy does not believe that ‘The American Dream’ is a myth, as most critiques do.  Instead, he believes it was ‘stolen’ from the people, by big businesses and greedy politicians, and traces the trouble to very specific origins lying in Reaganomics.

Steacy makes his stance on this history evident both through the wall text and the excerpts from his journal, included throughout.  His journal entries as well as the wall text (which states that he “comes from five generations of newspaper men”) clearly show that he identifies himself as part of the downtrodden masses currently suffering through the economic downturn. His personal presence in this piece strengthens its message, rather than weighing it down with personal bias.  His identification with the everyman is also shown through his idolatry of heroes such as Bruce Springsteen and Charles Bukowski, to which small homages are built within the collage.

The relationship between ‘The Beast’ and the photography, however, is less successful.  In a way it seems like Steacy’s photography is a variation of his collage-work: the same message in a different form.  The photographs are taken from his projects Down These Mean Streets, All My Life I Have Had The Same Dream, and We Are All In This Together. Steacy photographs in the same way that he collages:  culling moments, places, and people from the cultural landscape to bring the economic and social problems of our country to light.  These works seem to be most successful when they portray objects such as storefronts or fading advertisements, such as the text “Someplace Else” spray painted onto a wall in Detroit.  These images become almost poetic when taken out of their environments and placed in a gallery.  However, when this gaze is applied to people, Steacy’s portraits feel empty and place-less.  These pieces offer no specifics or context to their subject’s circumstances than what the viewer can glean from their personal appearance, and from the wall text.

The disjointed nature between the front and back rooms created a sense of imbalance in the exhibit, as though Steacy had said his point much more forcefully and clearly in The Beast than he had in his photographs.  Though in both cases, Steacy definitely achieves his goal of bringing the hardships endured in America to light.

Silver Eye Photography

Gang violence leaves seven dead. Foreclosures rise. Little help from the government. Banks request a bailout, receive one, and subsequently reward their top-executives with exorbitant bonuses. Iraq witnesses its deadliest month since the war began, a record surpassed the following month. Conservatives demand a return to traditional American values. Politicians snuggle in a bit closer with their primary donors, representing interest groups at the expense of the American people. Iraq death toll rises. Afghanistan nudges its way into the spotlight. Grim. Grim. And grimmer still.

Absolutely covering the surface of nearly 40 feet of drywall, the collage that forms of centerpiece of Will Steacy’s no job no home no peace no rest leaves little room for sunlight. Comprised of “thousands of newspapers collected over many years, his own photographs and writings, and found objects,” the giant mural consciously overwhelms the viewer with its bleak catalogue of all the problems facing America. Steacy organizes his collage around vague thematic “nodes,” with specific parcels of the piece devoted to different subjects – one section, for example, focuses on gang violence, while another centers on the bank-bailouts. After a time, the collage becomes a constellation of despair, imbuing the reader with the sense that these problems are insurmountable. Not a single of ray hope emanates from the piece – the artist seems to believe that a cutting humor is enough to provide the collage with lightheartedness. One small section, for example, juxtaposes cards featuring naked women, overlaid with hands cupped and ready to receive the Eucharist, all beneath a newspaper clipping relating congress’ renewed search for donors. Such portions make one chuckle, but it’s the kind of laugh that aches more than it lifts.

The rest of the show seems like an attempt to complement the collage with a more human dimension, as well as a more visceral “impact.” Several portraits adorn the back walls of the gallery, featuring solitary men and women set against backgrounds stereotypically emblematic of economic hardship. One man sits on a stone staircase leading to a cellar, while another leans against a streetlamp. The idea is clear: the difficulty of life in America as a result of all those rather dry, abstract realities described by the collage in the previous room. However, the portraits lack enough distinct information, so much so that, much like the centerpiece, the photographs begin to meld together, nullifying the humanizing aspects of these pictures that seem to be purpose in the first.

The last section of the show, on the other hand, works very well. The remaining photographs feature inanimate objects, often ironically juxtaposed with their environment, and make vividly clear the effects of the Great Recession. Condos, Chicago – the show’s most impactful piece – portrays a sign advertising the future site of condos behind a chain-link fence, beneath a bright moon. Eerie as an old-horror movie, this piece succinctly summarizes the theme of the show: the gradual inaccessibility of the American dream, and the possible phantasmal nature of that dream.

Works Cited

“Silver Eye.” Silver Eye. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.silvereye.org/exhibitions.htm&gt;.

Silver Eye: No Job No Home No Peace No Rest

Knowing that five generations of Will Steacey’s family (including himself) worked in the diminishing newspaper industry, we better understand the blend of photographs, pages of handwritten thoughts, and newspaper clippings that make up The Beast, a colossal collage that takes over the first room of the Silver Eye Center for Photography. In “No Job No Home No Peace No Rest” he portrays the death of the American dream, the core of American lifestyle. He appoints himself spokesperson for those who have had to bear the brunt.

Thousands of clippings, obsessively amassed over the years and carefully assembled with deliberation encapsulate the economic slump and the people’s growing desperation, from the prosperity of post-WWII to the changes triggered by 9/11. Headline after headline, some words crop up repeatedly: Nightmare. Promise. Crisis. Hell. Concerning the American Dream, this collage is truly disenchanting. In Steacy’s handwritten notes, his shock, and anger that it’s gone this far, shows through – and he’s not forgiving. Everything that’s going wrong in America makes The Beast; it’s monstrous, and once it charges, seems unstoppable. And it’s trampling over everyone.Steacy attempts to “hold a mirror to America” so we can review our mistakes. But, the mirror is tinted – it’s through the perception of the national media that we see, so it can eventually seem too blunt and excessive (like INVITATION TO A BEHEADING being placed above THE AMERICAN DREAM) because headlines are dramatic and provocative in order to get a reaction. However, he uses the collage to cover several subjects, which is not as easy to accomplish in a single photograph.

After the overwhelming information-crammed walls of the first room, the following two rooms feel quiet. Unless you’ve been desensitised by the staggering collage, Will Steacy’s photographs have an unnerving subtlety that tells the stories of individuals in a way that the collage can’t; The Beast is the nation’s agonising lament of its own condition. The photographs depict a building that has been planned but never realised, a “Set for Life” Lottery ticket that has been vigorously scratched. Some photos fall short of surpassing a normal view on a lower-class quarter of a city, like the two jack-o’lanterns on garden chairs or the discarded cup in a newspaper stand. Likewise, the portraits only work in the context of the economic crisis; without any captions to help us imagine their woes, his subjects are simply dispirited.

For those who aren’t struggling from the effects of the issues covered by Steacy, his works might make the magnitude of America’s problems dawn on you, or perhaps they just make accusatory generalisations. And for those who are strongly impacted, you may realise that the situation is worse than you thought. It would be futile to look for any signs of hope in the exhibition. There’s so much going wrong, how do we even begin to make amends? Is it possible to think of solutions if faced with an apocalyptic view of all the problems of America at the same time?

No job no home no peace no rest

“No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy”, currently on view at the Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side, exhibits Will Steacy’s collage the Beast, along with thirty-two individual photographs from earlier and ongoing projects–Down These Mean Streets, All My Life I Have Had The Same Dream, and We Are All In This Together. The exhibition takes its title from Bruce Springsteen’s song The Ghost of Tom Joad, and shares its view that Americans have grown adept at ignoring the increasingly sharp divide between the rich and the poor. Steacy, who has been creating photographic work dealing with contemporary social and economic issues for over a decade, presents the story of the American Dream told through the eyes of those who been left behind in the ashes of the Great Recession, peeling back the scab of America against the backdrop of the 2012 electoral season.

 

The Beast, if only because of its enormous size, emerges as the focal point of the show. No less than 170 feet long, the wall of material it presents consists in thousands of clippings from newspapers and magazines, journal entries, as well as photographs from Steacy’s own Down These Mean Streets series.  Steacy’s own photographs in the work examine the neighborhoods of America’s inner cities, where people from the outside rarely go, leaving it in a state of abandonment and loneliness. Steacy aims to reveal problems of the American urban world, such as the decline of the local economy, lack of proper nutrition and healthcare, and the prevalence of violence and drugs.  He blends his own voice–in the form of hand written journal entries and photographs–into found images and texts, the products of years of accumulation. His voice becomes indistinguishable when interweaved with other media presentations, none of which swings too far away from Steacy’s opinion on the issues. The collage begins by laying out a history of twentieth-century America, one that runs from the post-war promise of prosperity, to the Reagan administration’s deregulation of the economy, to the 9/11 attacks, to the financial crisis and the Great Recession–a downfall of American society unfolding in slow motion.

 

The form of collage made from photographs and newspapers has particular importance to Steacy. This fact is perhaps unsurprising, given he comes from five generations of newspapermen. For him, the newspaper is not only a mirror of the society, but ultimately the best history book for the future. His pessimistic view on America has a lot to do with his personal life in the past few years, a set of experiences he characterized as “devastating.” In such a condition, Steacy made The Beast a personal story, too. For this project, he worked 16 to 18 hours a day, and at the time he was finishing the piece, he felt physically exhausted, as well as mentally drained. What we are looking at in the gallery are sheets of paper that have been soaked by blood, sweat, and tears. It amounts to a real search for resilience during hard times, for Steacy himself, but also for the whole nation.

Silvereye Center for Photography: No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy

At the Silvereye Center for Photography on East Carson Street, No Job No Home No Peace No Rest, an installation byWill Steacy, showcases an interpretation of modern America through wall-sized collages of newspaper clippings, his own journal entries and photos, and remnants of what is presumed to be his own consumption.  Current and past events are depicted in the personage of the dashed, the beaten, and the hopeless state of mind that has become that of the American in the modern world.  This is a portrait of the thoughts of a downtrodden American dreamer.

In the corner of the room, the collage starts with the words “Down These Mean Streets. Will Steacy.” What follows are the declarations of his reasoning.  Newspaper clippings advertise tragedy in the woes of the modern American. His proposal of the today retorts that the everyday reality is a product of what is given to us through the sensationalized media.  By pairing media portrayal with pages torn from his own diary and photographs he has taken, his view on the rupture of the ruggedly individualistic American is revealed in his emotionally wrought musings. Complete with arrows depicting his thought process, he diagrams how he might conceptualize certain historical events or the way America’s economy works.  These musings are placed purposely next to articles about fiscal deficit or war.  Three packs of Newman cigarettes are pinned underneath a ripped section of a tax return form.

In the back room, photographs, some incorporated into this collage, are shown in a more traditional manner.   Scenes of derelict USA become serene through the framing of a shot, his portraits of people across the nation attempt to capture a gritty side to the land of the beautiful.

One most striking photograph is a portrait of a woman, Valerie, in Atlantic City.  It is the only portrait in the exhibition that is not perfectly in focus; the left side of her face is somewhat blurred, and she is squinting one eye against something coming at her from the left: wind, or light.  Her hair is pulled tightly back, and her lips are just beginning to open.  The expression on her face is hard to pinpoint. She seems to be looking at the photographer, perhaps questioning what on earth he might be doing, or his character.   She is blurry, yet out of all the portraits she seems the most real. It is as if she had somehow managed to just barely escape with safeguarding her identity and her emotions.  What is left is an imprint of her color, her blurry, windswept expression, and her blank stare.

One can easily sink into Down These Mean Streets at any point.  There is no beginning and no end to the events portrayed in the exhibition. It is rather circular and unreadable chronologically. After a while of looking at the photographs in particular, it becomes questionable what it is that can and should be aestheticized.  Through photographing the derelict inner city nighttime neighborhoods of the USA, Steacy is capturing a night world usually left alone and purposely avoided.

No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy

Amongst newspaper headlines and dated magazine photos, the Hulk has Captain America locked in his vice grip, forcing him to concede defeat. Just a small snippet of Will Steacy’s monumental collage work, the comic of the star-spangled hero is allegory for an America that is struggling to recapture the vitality it once reveled in, one that Steacy aims to expose in his exhibition, No Job No Home No Peace No Rest at the Silver Eye Center for Photography.

Located in Pittsburgh’s South Side, Silver Eye is interested in photography as an expressive medium and as a socially engaged practice that can inform as well as engage. This current work strikes these chords, as Steacy considers his work to be “both a chronicle and a critique of a nation where a once-attainable “American Dream” has been replaced, for so many, by a desperate effort to survive.” Steacy, a Philadelphia-born photographer from a long line of newspapermen has had work in a slew of major publications including CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek, among others.

The exhibition borrows its title from The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen, who in turn borrows the emblematic figure of Joad from John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath. Steacy’s work takes up Joad’s mantle, channeling that same overwhelmingly fervent nostalgia for an America where an honest day’s work will bring a better life.

The 170-foot collage installation dubbed “The Beast” overwhelms, submerging the audience in a deluge of images and words, harnessing a relentless march of newsprint to evoke the daily struggle of impoverished, distressed Americans. Through the barrage of media, the audience can find scraps of text that belong to the author’s pen; quick, emotional responses to expressions of Steacy’s sociopolitical thoughts, and, slipped below a slew of cut out images of jailed terrorists, three innocuous slips of paper, each brandishing a lipstick smear and the words “I Miss You”. The result of this sensorial maelstrom is the notion that nothing is entirely political or personal, but rather, the America in the media is a real place with people struggling to get by, against enormous odds.

Given the sense of personal attachment in the collage, there is a quietness and detachment in the prints in the rear room. In glossy, large-format prints, thirty-two works from three series, Down These Mean Streets, All My Life I Have Had The Same Dream, and We Are All In This Together are intended to capture the truths about distress and poverty, exposing the places where grit and visual poetry collide to detail critical issues in the American inner city. The portraits scattered among the evidence of decay are remarkably honest images, but they document existence without divulging narrative. Liz, Philadelphia, 2007 is a striking shot of a windswept young woman, but devoid of any context, she becomes anonymous, another emblem of a depressed America just like the crumbling buildings with which she shares the gallery walls.

No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy

As you enter the Silver Eye Center for Photography, you are thrust into the belly of The Beast. This 170-foot wallpaper overwhelmingly portrays the modern American story. Featuring newspaper clippings, photographs by the artist, empty cigarette cartons, Monopoly cards, signs, and other assorted items, No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy discusses a wide variety of topics: politicians, gun control, terrorism, and economic segregation to name a few. The walls are densely covered with headlines strewn together, creating phrases like “Earnings Soar”, “Rich Get Richer”, “Recession Depression”. Clustered together in one section of the wall is a discussion on gun control in America. Handwritten on a scrap of paper:

“The streets are RED

The chalk lines are WHITE

And the bodies BLUE.

These colors don’t run…”

A pistol has been cut out and placed into the hand of the Statue of Liberty, as she points it into the air.

Many of the items found on the wall are handwritten journal entries. The artist’s voice is that of a poor American. He speaks as if his situation is miserable. The wall next to The Beast tells us that his work is widely collected, featured in a whole litany of publications and news outlets, including CNN, NPR, Time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. He has three successful books in circulation, and travels between New York and Philadelphia frequently. He may not be wealthy, but he’s better off than his work reflects. This brings to question whether or not these scraps of writings he’s written are legitimate or dramatized. Are these merely invented tales of the average American? His work appears to be more self-referential than it puts on to be.

His portraits, for example feature an individual in a neutral environment. While these individuals may appear to be homeless, battered, or alone in some regard, no contextual information other than a city location and first name (or preferred name) are given. The portraits are too neutral to say anything themselves. But what the viewer casts onto these blank slates of individuals are negative and likely highly inaccurate readings of an entire lifestyle based only upon visible hygiene and wardrobe. One individual, an African American named Jack Rabbit, was photographed in Memphis, wearing an extremely large t-shirt featuring a print of a multitude of diamonds. Since it lacks much other contextual detail other than his physical state of appearance, I personally make the jump to homeless or otherwise very poor. And when I realize that his portraits force the viewer to impose labels upon uncontextualized individuals, it makes me question these assumptions about the subjects of the photographs.

While Steacy’s discussion may suggest the American dream is dead, he’s still clearly living it. His success through pointing out America’s failures is surely unintended and likely undesired, but as it is becoming the case, Steacy’s work will appear to be from outside looking in.