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Eyes Wide Open
By Jean Dykstra

Family bonds, as anyone with a family knows can be a complicated entanglement. Parents have hopes and expectations; children chafe against them. A warm, loving embrace becomes a suffocating stranglehold. In Angela Strassheim’s vivid color photographs of well-groomed, comfortable families, those bonds are by turns received and resisted in a variety of small moments. And the longer we look at her seemingly mundane scenes, the more unsettling they appear.

A fair-haired family of six sits in a McDonald’s, ready for dinner. Before they begin, they join hands and bow their head in prayer—all but the eldest daughter, a teenager who glances away from the rest of her family, looking bored and impatient. The photograph is taken from the outside, as if the viewer were standing in the parking lot. A painting on the wall depicts a McDonald’s from the 1950s, say, suggesting the old-fashioned send of values. The scene is busy, visually speaking, with hand-made Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling, a neon McDonald’s sign reflecting in the glass, and a disordered array of tables and chairs, but the family forms a peaceful circle that excludes the outside world. Except for the girl, the broken link in the chain.

It’s a complex picture visually, but also conceptually, in terms of its open-ended narrative possibilities. And it takes nothing away from the photograph to know that the family could be a surrogate for Strassheim’s own, the teenage girl a stand-in for Strassheim herself. Strassheim, who blends fact and fiction in her stages photographs, comes from a family of born-again, Apostolic Christians, and she has always had the sense of not quite fitting in. Christianity, nonetheless (or rather consequently), is a recurring theme in many of her photographs. Biblical references; butterflies, symbols of metamorphosis and rebirth; crosses and cross-like poses; portentous shafts of light, these all feature regularly in her images, which also allude to stories involving estrangement, conflict, and the search for identity.

In Untitled (Father and Son), a neatly pressed man and his son, who is seven

  or eight, wear nearly identical uniforms of white shirts and red ties and stare into a bathroom mirror. The father rests one hand on the boy’s shoulder while combing his hair into place with thether. It’s a rich, ambiguous image: the father’s gesture could just as easily be loving as controlling, and it’s probably both at once. The two red ties fall into line, one directly above the other, like obedient exclamation points. Color reverberates through Strassheim’s images as a kind of visual punctuation: those ties, the bright yellow of the bathtub in the image of the toddler washing her mother’s hair (a glimpse into the future when the child will care for the parent); the gold-upholstered sofa along the bottom of Untitled (Rapture), which together with a deep blue curtain, form two large swaths of color that frame a small painting of the Rapture, the day when Christ will return and those who are saved will rise up to heaven and those who are not will be left behind.

There is also a psychological component to the color in Strassheim’s photographs: the deep, moody purple of Untitled (Julia), in which a young girl lays on her bed, staring vacantly at the ceiling: knees slightly bent and arms reaching straight out, her pose on the girlish bed suggesting a cross. Or the murky, pale green water in the fish tank in an untitled photograph from 2003. The neglected fish in the tank seem to be the only living things in the neat but desolate house, and the image is more about what’s missing that what’s there—not only fish, but someone to tend them. That huge, half-hearted tank suggests large ambitions, now discarded. And there’s a deadpan sort of humor in it, too, it being a 40-x-50-inch portrait of nothing more than a sparsely populated fish tank.

In contrast, Untitled (Horses), is one of Strassheim’s more elaborately staged photographs. A young girl with angel wings who is bathed in light reads from a small Bible while a heard of toy horses flees the scene. A boy sleeps in a twin bed in the room in front of her, while his doppelganger lurks malevolently underneath a bed across the room. It’s an apocalyptic, visionary image, and yet a little absurd too. How seriously are we meant to take those toy horses thundering across the carpet, after all?

That slender thread of humor isn’t accidental. Strassheim’s images are not mocking or judgmental, but they do invite many possible readings. As a result, they have elicited a range of reactions, anger as well as appreciation.

Strassheim has an MFA in photography from Yale University, but she is also certified in forensic and biomedical photography by the Metro-Dade County Forensic Imaging Bureau in Florida, and she worked as a forensic photographer in Miami, New York and Richmond, Virginia for several years. Those experiences not only led to a series of photographs whose subjects were staged re-creations of crime scenes, but they also seem to have deflated any ominous, apocalyptic notions of death she might have had. As a non-believer, Strassheim has grown up understanding that she would go to Hell when she died. Spending time in morgues and crime scenes, seeing one dead body after another, removed those fears and replaced them with an almost clinical detachment.

The sort of steady, unwavering gaze characterizes her photographs, which can be unexpectedly intimate (a tender picture of her grandmother in a pink suit and a pink-stain-lines coffin) and also unnerving, as in Untitled (Storytelling), in which a father holds a compound bow while he sits in a rocking chair in the bedroom of his three blond boys, who all wear camouflage pajamas. The photograph, like many of Strassheim’s symbolically loaded images, contains a disquieting blend of domesticity and violence. And like many of her photographs, too, it is at once specific (the subjects of the picture are an actual family, in a room of their house) and archetypal, suggesting the many ways death of violence (in thought or in deed) can puncture the calm surface of things. Strassheim herself first saw a dead body when she was nine years old, while taking a stroll around her own suburban subdivision. Walking alongside an excavated area that would become the neighborhood’s man-made lake, she spotted the boy of a boy. She ran to the nearest house for help, and when the paramedics came, she stayed to watch. This compulsion to look has never faded. Her photographs are the product of this curious, unflinching gaze. And they are so carefully observed, and so fantastically inconclusive, that they keep us looking, too.