Tell Your Secrets
By Dr. Laura Amrhein
“A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”
Using discarded or found photographs as the basis for her compositions, Katherine Strause gives the individuals in her paintings another life and dimension when they could have easily just have been discarded or forgotten. Given a collection of estate photographs from the 1920s and 1950s furthered her interest in memory and how memories are made and kept alive. She once asked—“who will look at our photos when we are gone?” But her paintings are not purely documentary or nostalgic as Strause alters and re-arranges the compositions to provide us with candid, colorful, psychological glimpses into the lives of young girls, women, family, and friends. Painters have long used photography as a way to help them recall and capture fleeting moments and experiences in their studios. Strause flips that process on its head by using ready-made snap shots and turns them into something new. These are real people with real lives—most originally posed for a photographer (first viewer) and now pose for Strause who bravely takes liberty in re-interpreting. She states “…I approach these images as subject matter and create my own relationship with these individuals. These portraits possess a look of determination and hope. They represent us all.”
Themes of childhood, marriage, friendship, aging, social constraints or struggles connect viewers to the past and present. Shared yet individual experiences find their way into paintings such as Saturday. Strause shows a casually posed group of girlfriends reacting to the photographer—he or she seems to have just told joke or made some comment. Each girl’s expression is unique…the girls in the center seem a bit skeptical, the girl in white on the far right laughs, and the redheaded girl on the far left seems to flirt. In the foreground, a bent-overtired, embarrassed, or laughing bike rider anchors the scene. In this image and others, Strause prompts viewers to recall those moments of adolescence and what it means to have girlfriends.
Strause’s exploration of these subjects and her use of color has a significant impact on the emotive quality of her paintings. The idea of taking old black and white photographs and infusing them with a unique palette is another way she engages us to think about past and present. The yellow path in Coral Snake leads us to a strong woman standing with one foot firmly planted on a deadly snake. Her right hand is behind her back leading us to believe she is holding something. The women next to her turns away from us to look down the path to a hill and white picket fence with bystanders and a faint sign reading “Pigott.” The figures on the horizon draw our attention to the black women in control. She crushes or subdues this potentially dangerous snake and protects the woman and us from its venom. Many of Strause’s paintings address women, work, and growing up white in the south. About this particular woman, Strause asks “is she caring for the people that use her…a sacrifice?” Her facial expression seems to beg us a steady question.
Ideas associated with transcendence, hope, transformation and gentle strength find their way through this collection of paintings particularly in her work Monarch. Strause paints a woman standing behind a farm table lined with canned fruits and vegetables. Around the woman, a flurry of small butterflies scatter in the air around her. A very large monarch alights on the woman’s breast like a beautiful decorative pin. Viewers can readily understand the butterfly as asymbol of change and transformation especially in tandem with the harvest in late summer. But a “monarch” is also someone who is a ruler, a queen, the head of state—the butterfly is also resistant to predators since the caterpillars feed on milkweed—using the toxins to make themselves and the adults distasteful to prey.
As in Monarch, Strause’s work Corsage elicits a collective yet individual emotional response. In this painting, two dapper women pose in front of a colorful hedge wearing large white flowers with their arms around each other. Strause shows us first date hopefulness and the relationship between friends. One can imagine these girls preparing for their dates—talking about expectations or even fears. Perhaps one of their dates takes the photograph—maybe its their mother or father. It is apparent the dog is oblivious to the event as he turns away from the photographer adding to the snap shot quality capturing a moment in time.
A more melancholic and seemingly unresolved approach is by Strause in the painting Wind. Loose brushstrokes, roughly sketched hands and large patches of color make up the wistful figure to evoke a quiet reflective mood. It is noticeable that in most of the works in this collection the individuals look out at or engage us, but this young woman is in her own world. Light patches of imprimatura (an initial stain of color painted on ground) appear through the washes of vibrant blues, browns, and greens conveying a hopefulness. What is this woman thinking about? In this painting and others such as Photographers we are asked to step into moments of elation, expectation, or somber moments when we experience self-doubt or self-consciousness. However, Strause infuses all of her subjects with hope through her use of vibrant, beautiful colors and patterned skies, dresses and landscapes. Hollyhock may show us a concerned and even sad daughter who is thinking of what life might be like without her mother, but like most of the characters in Strause’s works these women evoke courage and strength.
Arbus’s quote “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know” seems fitting when viewing this latest collection of Strause’s paintings. She engages the viewer to look closer at these individuals. What are their secrets? Do they know something we don’t? If we figure them out, will we learn something aboutourselves? Strause has formed her own relationship with these individuals and now she asks us to do the same.