By Jacob Brunner
Jim Strong: Flight of Fancy, Vox Populi, September-October 2018
Somewhere in a suburban Philadelphia basement, tucked away in a closet so small I have to crouch, wild exultations of pure pigment are slowly evaporating…
For years, I have been fortunate enough to observe the creative life of my confidante and collaborator, Jim Strong. Nearly ten years ago, I remember Strong working feverishly to develop his own visual art technique. Over time, as his approach evolved, so too did the work’s themes and presentations. What began as densely textured abstractions slowly morphed into smooth, glossy screens with figurative elements.
Strong’s recent solo exhibition at Philadelphia’s Vox Populi gallery, Flight of Fancy, presented his most recent work. His pigment transfers defy easy categorization: though they are very much paintings, they discard traditional painterly technique. In his process, pools of pigment and water are placed in plastic bags atop everyday objects, family heirlooms, gifts from friends, and thrift store purchases. Over time, the liquid evaporates, leaving behind pigment decals transcribed with the object’s textural information. Strong then transfers the textured pigment onto another surface, usually wood, layering it in surprising ways.
Strong’s description of these paintings as recordings is apt. Recording implies something captured, something caught—not merely the artist as actor, but an aleatoric element at play. As with so many improvised jams in the Strong household (littered around the house, hundreds of ghost cassettes), there’s a capriciousness to Strong’s process. One may forecast a textural outcome, but the exact topography remains elusive until the final reveal. Even the transfer process itself has a degree of unreliability—a chunk of pigment may not carry over from bag to surface, creating unexpected ruptures in the evaporated fabric.
This is not to say that these paintings are mere acts of faith. I remember, years ago, Strong talking about musicians using fidelity as painters would use light—something he did (and still does) as a musician. The true recording artist has no obligation to clarity—and therein lies the element of command. As a painter shifts variables of color and light in service of feeling, so too can a producer disrupt the transition from event to artifact. As both painter and musician, Strong is in tune with the studio as instrument (more dub than opera). His work is not entirely unrecognizable from the everyday, but, in his words, “simulacra of the familiar.”
The magic of Strong’s process resonates with the history of recording. At one point, the capturing and subsequent conjuring of experience was beyond the scope of human understanding. The disembodied voice of the phonograph was uncanny, if not horrifying—like film’s locomotive chugging toward the theatergoer. Advances in technology have only amplified the magic. According to Brian Eno, the move to tape was critical because it was “malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t.” Rather than present moments passed, recordings could now present performances that never happened. Different motifs recorded in different locations at different times could be compressed into a coherent document, defying the continuity of space and time. It is this aspect of recording that most resonates with Strong’s work. The recording in these paintings happens on several levels: first, the natural pigment evaporation records textural information onto the bags; second, various familial and domestic moments are collapsed into a single text; finally, the many topographies of the original objects are compressed into a severely uniform surface. In these ways, Strong’s paintings refract coherent experience, compressing time, space, and feeling into densely concentrated fields.
Also worth noting are the spiritual overtones in Strong’s work. I mean spirituality here as akin to wonderment, a protean appreciation of all things microbial, human, and cosmic. In particular, I am reminded of Norman O. Brown’s vision of art via Freud’s discussion of wit: “Art as pleasure, art as play, art as the recovery of childhood, art as making conscious the unconscious, art as a mode of instinctual liberation.” These ludic qualities are all deeply present in Strong’s work.
Flight of Fancy offers a complex perspective on life both vaulted and absurd, where anything and everything can be made signifier. Rejecting a simplistic dualism, these paintings bear the marks of their own production (possessing a “skin-layer”); yet, within their corporeal embodiment arise spiritual questions, objects appearing as though floating in front of a void—phantasmagoric, apparitional, spectral. To behold these works was like closing my eyes and seeing a series of afterimages.
If we believe Robert Creely’s dictum that “form is never more than an extension of content,” then it’s no surprise that as this technique has morphed, so too has its content. Over time, these works have adopted a more deliberately figurative expression. Sea life, phones, family portraits, plants, fans, tennis rackets: the detritus of man and nature commingling in a wildly imaginative dance. Often, these figurative elements pay homage to domesticity, which has always been of central importance to Strong’s work. Almost all of his art—paintings, instruments, recordings—has been made in and around his home base (the same home where his father was raised). As a result, many a familial interaction or everyday object has been filtered through the aesthetic lens, and each work is thoroughly infused with a self-reliant, DIY ethos. Walking through Strong’s studio, one is struck by his sense of resourcefulness and respect for the materials in and around the home. In the spirit of punk messthetics, Strong has (somewhat effacingly) referred to his “aesthetic of failure”; failure here being a proxy for experimentation, serendipity, and a healthy distrust of orthodox technique. This speaks to his transformational power as an artist, his joy in re-contextualizing the normal as abnormal, in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Many an encounter in the Strong house has morphed into some kind of slapstick performance art. Many “kitchen games” with curious outcomes: a prostrate wooden manikin with sweet potato protruding from its anus, a particularly threatening slicing of pizza, a cat in heat placed on one’s back. A friend of ours used to call these surreal acts of domestic pantomime “art lock,” which spoke to her fears surrounding the loss of the art/life distinction. But there is a deeper truth to art lock, one worth embracing: that to distill the absurd from the everyday is to preserve wonderment.
Jim Strong breathes art like no one I know. His ability to live spontaneously, his manifold curiosity, his voracious interest in the surrounding environment have all molded him into a very special artist. In every cup of coffee, every diced vegetable, every rambling walk, an opportunity for the beautiful absurd.
Jim Strong is an interdisciplinary artist and curator based in the Philadelphia area. His work spans a variety of methods and media; including painting, musical instrument invention, improvised performance, collaborations in video, dance and theater as well as curation of exhibitions, festivals and event-programming.
Jacob Brunner is a musician and writer living in Philadelphia. His poetry and translations have been published in Cousin, Doublespeak, and Title. Since 2006, he has produced music independently as Strawberry Hands. His most recent LP Peace Isn’t Luck (Rarities 2009-2017) and others are available at strawberryhands.bandcamp.com. He has a new full-length slated for release in 2019.