By Susan WallnerA hot young artist making waves at the current Whitney Biennial, LaToya Ruby Frazier has a laser focus and a committed work ethic. She commutes daily to her job at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers in New Brunswick, where she curates the gallery and teaches photography. She shows her work internationally, with exhibitions in Italy, Korea, and Spain in 2011 alone. The artist, born in 1982, creates evocative yet hard-hitting work about her family and the place where she grew up – the decaying steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh.
Frazier’s photographs hearken back to the poetic yet profoundly political images created by photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Lewis Hine, and Berenice Abbott. She has taken up their goal of social commentary through documentary photography, yet she is also strongly influenced by later conceptual artists. As with many 21st century artists, Frazier is focused more on ideas than on a particular medium. She is best known for her large-format silver print photographs, but video, printmaking, writing, and performance art are all central to her work.
Frazier is committed to Braddock as her ongoing inspiration and social cause. She began as a teenager taking photographs of her family, which has deep roots in the city: her great-grandfather once worked in Carnegie’s steel mills, her grandmother lived through the Civil Rights struggles and white flight, and she herself was born during Reaganomics, a time when Braddock suffered from a deadly crack epidemic.Recently, she has deconstructed a Levi’s Jeans “Go Forth” ad campaign set in Braddock. The Levi’s billboards and commercials picture the town as an “urban frontier,” ready to be reclaimed by hipsters in hardhats. As a longtime resident, Frazier finds this offensive. As she writes on one of her prints, “How can we go forth when our borough’s buses and ambulances have been cut?”
Frazier now sees Braddock as part of a larger whole: “Taking the NJ Transit through New Jersey, passing through Newark, seeing the industrial ruins and the degradation,” she reflects, “there’s even a factory that says Pittsburgh Steel on it that I pass every day! It expanded me, realizing that this is a whole American problem with the global economy and the loss of blue collar jobs and the demise of all the factories.”
The New York Times calls it “one of the best Whitney Biennials in recent memory.” LaToya Ruby Frazier says she is honored to be part of the exhibition with some of her heroes, including documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Her work can be found on the 2nd floor of the Whitney through May 27, and on May 11 she’ll be giving a performance, “Demystifying the Myth of the ‘Urban Pioneer’”, free with admission to the museum.
“LaToya Ruby Frazier: Politics & Poetics” is featured on the next episode of State of the Arts, airing on Sunday, April 1 at 8 pm on NJTV. Watch a special preview.
The Whitney Biennial 2012 runs through May 27; for more information, visit whitney.org.