“Should I get another beer real quick?” I’m sitting in a bar with Ian Strange, a pint deep, and we’re about to commence an interview, which is teetering dangerously close to disintegrating into messy catch-up beers. While now based in New York, Ian and I have stayed in contact since he first created a cover for ACCLAIM (under his Kid Zoom moniker) way back in 2008. We’ve met up a number of times in between but tonight really does feel like a homecoming of sorts. The last five years have seen Ian undertake one hell of a journey. Perhaps fortuitously, the focus of this interview is on a body of work that’s very much a culmination of these journeys, the Suburban project, easily the artist’s most ambitious project to date.
“Going back home tries to force you to be that person that you were. No one there will acknowledge the growth that you see in yourself. You’re almost obliged to be the person you were, frozen in time before you left.” Ian is speaking on the process of returning home, not just for himself but for everyone. ‘Frozen in time’ is an apt description of this feeling. It’s a sentiment many can identify with. Returning often feels like lack of progress, you’re going backwards, not forwards, and his new body of work reflects on this sense of detachment through troubling visions of suburbia frozen in stasis.
Suburban is the result of two and half years of work for Ian and his team, and it is staggering in both its size and in the caliber of its execution. The multifaceted solo exhibition (which opened at the newly renovated NGV studio space in Melbourne’s Federation Square in late July), features a body of work that navigates the mediums of photography, film and installation. Eight site-specific installations incorporating real suburban homes are the foundation of the project. Working with a film crew and volunteers, Ian travelled to Ohio, Detroit, Alabama, New Jersey, New York and New Hampshire to create the installations and the subsequent artworks and documentation of houses that form the basis of the exhibition. Suburban is the first in what is to be a ongoing body of work for Ian and whilst the works were created onsite, the ideas for the project are very much rooted closer to home.
“I painted a skull on a house back in Perth in 2008 and that was the first time I realised there was really something in that, that act of visually working on a house. I kept coming back to that image”. Thematically that first house was replicated, to some degree, with Ian’s work Home that was exhibited in the great Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island, Sydney in 2011. A to-scale replication of the artist’s childhood home, the work and subsequent video work cemented Ian’s interest in exploring the concept of the home. “I was invited back to Australia [from New York] to create an installation exhibition and I thought, I’m coming back home to make the work, I want to make something that reflects that, that works as a multi-layered homecoming. So I was literally coming home to rebuild my home”.
The act of recreating his home naturally led Ian to reflect upon his origins. Both in the wider context of being Australian, but more specifically his time growing up in suburban Perth. “That work was a very specific personal exploration of my suburban upbringing and it’s now led to this work which is looking at a larger idea of the suburbs and looking at the icon of the home. I think there’s this kind of underlying dread and detachment that’s a part of that suburban DNA in Australia in particular, but I think broadly as well”.
It’s this sense of ‘underlying dread’ that is crystalised in Suburban. The finished body of work consists of eight large-scale photographic works, as well a series of film and videos, and the imagery is unsettling. The amalgamation of dark, foreboding symbols such as a skull or a violently paint red cross, applied to an archetype of security and nostalgia speaks of Ian’s own experience of suburbia, but also the larger social and political discontent that inhabits the cultural institution. Defacing these buildings, these icons of both safety but also entrapment, was very much a cathartic experience for Ian.
“That’s that element of painting on a house that I’m really interested in. You’re not actually destroying the house, you could still live in it, but you’re destroying the idea of it. There’s still that idea of destruction through painting on something that I really enjoy” says Ian of the process. “It’s this kind of sacred icon in society, so to paint on it and to cover it and destroy it… there’s a catharsis in that. Destroying this icon that you feel completely at odds with.”
This detachment from suburbia very much underpins Ian’s practice in many ways. It’s what provoked him to first start painting graffiti in Perth as a teenager, it’s what motivated him to travel to New York later in life, and it now forms a body of work that is truly his own. “I went on this really long journey of starting from a more traditional graffiti background, then moving on to what you’d probably call street art, then leaving Perth, going through Sydney and Melbourne and then out to New York,” he says of the experience. “It sort of took me going to New York to realise that a lot of that graffiti and street art work globally has a really urban context and that actually what I relate to more and what’s unique about me is this very suburban upbringing.”
There is some irony in the fact that something Ian once resented is something he now chooses to focus his practice on but it’s a dichotomy he seems to enjoy. “That’s something that’s interesting to me, the fact that the suburbs were a thing that made me feel detached, angry and angst ridden and that made me paint graffiti in the first place. It’s the thing that made me run away from Perth and want to get out of what I saw as a small town and it’s that angst that made me run all the way to New York. It took me getting there to realise, that that’s actually a unique story. My story.”
Once associated heavily with the graffiti and street art scenes, the Suburban project now places Ian outside of this realm. It is a marked evolution for the artist and announces him as a contemporary artist in his own right. “The graffiti work I was doing was definitely coming from a genuine place… but when I started painting I was 15 or 16 and I wanted to impress the guys I looked up to, who were graffiti writers five or six years older than me. Then you [move on] from that and more and more I think you start making work for yourself” he says of his current direction. “As you get older you realise the only person you really want to impress is yourself and you want to progress.” This separation from his old practice is echoed in Ian now creating work under his given name, rather than the Kid Zoom moniker. When asked why this was important, Ian puts it down to sincerity. “I think if you’re trying to make autobiographical work and trying to make work that’s more sincere, I think it seems disingenuous to do it under a fake name.”
Speaking to Ian, you very much get the feeling that the last two years have been a period spent working towards this announcement of Ian Strange – the contemporary artist. An artist whose name will be intrinsically tied with a specific aesthetic and body of work, which cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. Perhaps this is a result of being mentored by the contemporary pop artist Ron English, an artist who triggers thoughts of a very specific aesthetic the second the viewer hears his name. Ian credits Ron with instilling an obligation within himself to create something new. “For me being mentored by Ron English… when he was starting out in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he painted billboards, he did vinyl toys and did all these things before they were things you could make money from, and it was because that’s what he wanted to do. That whole generation mastered something new” he explains. “Coming under that mentorship, it was very much my understanding that it’s my obligation as an artist to say ‘well, where am I going that’s new? What unique experience am I bringing to my story?’”
The film component of Suburban sees a definitive new experience brought to Ian’s work. While Ian did have a video component with Home, his precursor to Suburban, this time viewers can expect film to be an integral part of how they digest the work. Ian studied film at university, not painting, and it’s perhaps the reason he is so interested in the act of documenting art, not just creating the art object itself. Again, it was his isolation in suburbia which led him to realise that the documentation and dissemination of work is often more critical than the work itself. “The only way I ever left Perth is because I put my work on the internet. I had images on Myspace and Flickr, an old Deviant Art account. I never lived in a major city. The big things happened to me because of the photos of my work. So for me, the documentation has slowly become the product and I’m not saying that’s what everyone should do but that’s where I’m taking my work.”
With his latest video works, the act of documentation has been pushed to its limits. The house installations were reverse engineered, specifically with the finished photograph and 60 seconds of video footage in mind. The house, angle, lenses, lighting design and time of day were all chosen specifically in order to capture that one moment perfectly. For Ian this appeals to the control freak in him. It’s an act of controlling the parameters in which the work is viewed and leaving nothing to chance. The slickness of the documentation also infers quality and legitimacy. “It’s elevating the work to a level that would only be used in commercial cinema. It really says how far can you push the documentation of site-specific work. And for me, it’s using all these indictors that you take from the commercial world, that apply high value to something and then applying that to a static piece of architecture that’s been painted on.”
The film element of the show has been taken another step further with the creation of an 11-minute short film. The film has been edited from documentation of the works and has Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden) and his production company, Warrior Poets, on board to distribute it. Set to run the short film circuit, the film will no doubt find specific resonance in the USA, a country that has experienced much disillusionment in relation to the concept of the home. The economic crisis and the way in which it has affected home ownership in the United States certainly introduces another reading of Suburban and one which Ian invites. “In America, home prices have dumped down so low. A whole generation has watched their parents work day-in-day-out with the idea that they get a house as their reward. You can own a home. You can own a piece of this country by buying this house. And they’ve seen that whole way of life get devalued completely.”
There’s no denying that Western culture subscribes to an almost irrational desire for home ownership and the quest for suburban bliss, a concept in itself which brings anxiety to Ian. But with the artist working with his bare hands on houses for two and half years – going through the painstaking process of looking for the perfect house and then modeling it, painting it and remodeling it to perfection – surely this gave him an insight or understanding as to society’s entrenched attachment to these static constructions of wood and brick? Well, not really. “It’s funny, we would go shopping at Home Depot on a weekend with other dudes who were filling up their carts. We were buying vinyl siding, window bits, curtains, gardening equipment and shit to put in the houses and we realised they were buying all the same stuff but they were doing it to beautify their home and we were buying it to destroy homes and to destroy the image of the thing they were beautifying,” he says. “When you buy 80 litres of paint to paint a house black and you’re standing in line next to a guy who’s buying one of the many colours of off-white to redecorate the interior of a bedroom, it’s a pretty surreal moment.”
At any rate, it looks as though Ian will have more than enough time to unpack his relationship with the suburbs, as we are looking at the first of what is to be an ongoing body of work from the artist. “It really is the beginning of a really long body of work for me” he reflects. “It’s my own direction as an artist and my own platform that I can work within.” Perhaps Ian’s desire to have a body of work which he can call his own is not so different from the reasons John Citizen wants his very own piece of the suburbs. Maybe our desire for ownership of something is a fundamentally human trait, it just takes different forms. Ian takes a sip from his beer and finishes contemplatively, “it’s taken me a really long time to get to this place where I’ve found something that feels like it belongs to me.”
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