It would be easy to smirk at the scene, which seems to poke fun at the God-fearing. A row of tired-looking shopping carts rests against a dingy white wall. In the center of the wall hangs a gold cross. A portrait of Jesus holds court over the sad tableau.
The title of the photograph is Salvation Army. Though its creator, artist Jason Zimmerman, sees the irony in the piece, his intention isn’t to mock. “I would hate for a viewer to think I was trying to make fun of somebody,” he says. “I have no judgment against the culture in which [the image] exists.”
Such affection for his subjects certainly comes from the fact that Zimmerman, whose new show at Irvine Contemporary Art is called “Straight, Street, Traditional,” shoots what he knows. A frilly, heart-shaped candy box had been hanging around his studio for months before he decided to take a picture of it. Two of his photos feature a partly skinned deer that his father killed while on a family hunting trip. He found the defaced Bible featured in Holy Bible (With Crayon) in York, Pa., where he lived as a teenager. It was in the same Salvation Army that became the subject of Salvation Army.
Zimmerman purchased his first camera in the Keystone State at age 16, and says it became “a complete obsession.” In 2003, he graduated from the Corcoran College of Art & Design with a degree in photography; he started exploring video and new media there, as well.
This fall marked Zimmerman’s first solo show in D.C., at the Transformer Gallery. The centerpiece was a video called Fair Game, which consisted of approximately 140 foot-chase sequences from the television show Cops looped and projected onto a large screen. He mounted speakers on the roof to catch the attention of passers-by.
But Zimmerman received even more attention last spring, when he contributed 12 portraits of soldiers to the “Faces of the Fallen” exhibition at Arlington National Cemetery. Zimmerman says he considered pulling his pieces because he felt the project had shifted to a pro-war stance; he’s subsequently spoken out against both the war and the project in publications such as U.S. News & World Report.
With “Straight, Street, Traditional,” “I got to revisit my roots in a way,” says the 27-year-old Mount Pleasant resident. “Even though I’m a young artist, and my roots aren’t that far from where I am now.”
Zimmerman hates comparing himself to other artists, but he says he admires photographers William Eggleston and Richard Prince and filmmakers David Lynch and John Waters—he loves Waters’ “kitschy, campy, sort of over-the-top sensibilities.”
Zimmerman’s own sensibilities aren’t quite as easy to read. “A lot of people can’t figure out what to do with this work,” says Martin Irvine, president and director of Irvine Contemporary Art. “It’s very conceptual photography. They’re not just pretty pictures.”
The conception comes quickly. Usually, Zimmerman sees something funny and his gut tells him to take out his camera. He shoots with 35 mm slide film in what he refers to as a “deadpan approach.” The technique translates into straight-on shots of real scenes and found objects, with no obvious editorializing by the artist. “They catch us in the act of judging,” says Irvine.
Having spent so much time in the spotlight recently, Zimmerman hasn’t had much time lately to work on new projects, and it’s “becoming a little depressing,” he says. “Once the work is up, then there’s sort of this postpartum response to it. Like, ‘Now what?’ I still have a lot of work to do.”—Rachel Beckman
“Straight, Street, Traditional” is on view to Saturday, Feb. 11, at Irvine Contemporary Art, 1710 Connecticut Ave. For more information, call (202) 332-8767.