“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.