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.