Going to Hell

about Angela Strassheim

Raised by strict religious parents who convinced her she was going to hell when she died, Angela Strassheim is another of those artists able to cause strong feelings and a great deal of confusion in a world that is increasingly shut down, and where its people are inevitably refusing to understand things by themselves, individually. The result can often have simplistic conclusions and dangerous medieval aspects. Googling pictures by Angela, among the related ones, you can see popping here and there photographs and pornographic sites, and it’s not so hard to imagine the thought of an average viewer in front of a similar juxtaposition: “so, then, this is pornography!” Yet, often than not, this only stirs up curiosity, albeit in a somewhat corrupt and malicious way, as “someone” certainly will know — someone who might even has to do directly with porn industry, so as we assumed several times.

In December 2014, attendance has nearly tripled at Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art since the City Council president, Clay Yarborough, denounced as pornographic a photograph by Angela showing a nude pregnant woman reclining on a love seat. Mr. Yarborough called on the mayor to rescind more than $230,000 in city funding for the museum because of the artwork, one of 14 photographs on the theme of life transitions in an exhibition by the photographer. “The man is entitled to his own opinion,” Angela said. “But I don’t think it in any way is pornography. Maybe he hasn’t seen enough porn.” Wisdom prevailed in the Jacksonville case, with the mayor and other local authorities voting unanimously against the removal of the offending photograph.

Angela’s conservative Christian childhood is probably a fundamental key to understanding her photography. Her photos of family life are not inspired just by her own past memories, but by seeing her siblings repeating the same strict behavior with their children. Many of her photographs feature her actual family members. She strives to capture the most intimate and uncomfortable moments of family life with an unflinching eye, whether it’s a family saying grace over sausage and eggs, or a father spanking his adolescent daughter.

Looking along the left edge of The Spanking, there is an out-of-focus doorknob, giving the sense that we are peering voyeuristically into someone’s private space. Within, two figures are caught reenacting Max Ernst’s famously transgressive The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses, only instead of Mary disciplining the infant Jesus, we have a lean, gray-haired father-figure perched on the side of a bed, teenage girl bent over his knee. Her underwear is pulled down, and you can see the flesh rippling where his hand impacts her bare bottom. The fact that she appears rather too old for such treatment, added to the facial masking of the man, gives a surreal concern to the whole image.

Born in Bloomfield, Iowa, Angela graduated from Yale’s storied photography program and worked as a forensic photographer for several years before focusing on her conceptual photography. She has wanted to work with dead bodies since she was nine years old: “When I would pass by a house where a violent and newsworthy death had recently occurred, I would stand there, close my eyes and try to imagine what took place.” So, after the Forensic & Biomedical Photography Certification she started to takes pictures of autopsies for eight hours a day, every single day. And this could only become art, through series like Evidence and Mortuary — “glowing trail of bloodshed as swaths and constellations of light” and re-creations of death scenes she witnessed while working in Dade County, Florida.

Today, Angela lives and works in Brooklyn, New York and Jerusalem, Israel. We don’t know if she is really destined for hell, but if so, surely she would not be alone there in the eternal flames. Everyone who shares with her all sorts of secrets, emotions, and the wonderful terrible fragile pulse of life, would burn around her.


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