Born Detroit, 1948 / BS (Education), Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit, Michigan
For Jon Strand, making art is a long-distance sport. He is a 21st century pointillist, manifesting his elaborate visions by applying layer after layer of tiny dots to paper with the use of a rapidograph (a technical pen of German manufacture). When he discusses his “ink paintings,” Strand provides an offhand but remarkably precise account of how long each takes to create: 1,874 hours for this one, 717 for that. This tendency toward quantification originated in the formative advice of a curator friend: that an artist should effectively communicate the extent of his labor in order to be taken seriously enough to earn a living wage. But an appreciation of Strand’s work must go beyond its curious and compelling means of execution, because his art, like other long-distance endeavors, is about much more than endurance and technical accomplishment; it is about transcendence.
In 1984, Strand, a decade and a half into his pointillist practice, inhabited the 33rd floor of the mostly-vacant David Broderick Tower. His home and studio were in a onetime office suite with three sets of French doors and three balconies, from which he overlooked the struggling downtown. A friend’s comment about a New York penthouse for sale (“You’d have to have the money of the gods to afford it”) got him thinking from his deserted, lofty perch about both ancient mythology and the bald inequities of the day. Thus was born Strand’s “alter ego,” Jonny Strange, and the body of work that occupied him for 22 years. The Jonny Strange series, comprising 106 ink paintings and one animated short film, tells the story of the titular character’s journey from our troubled world to Neo-Helicon, home of the nine muses and the god Apollo. Strand describes Jonny’s epic quest to find the gods of old as a response to the horrors of the world that they’d abandoned, and an appeal to the eternal virtues they represent. The architectural forms that came to dominate the series’ striking visual language — pyramids, obelisks, temples, and towers — were inspired by the ancient world, as well as the Art Deco skyscrapers Strand saw every day, but they also grew out of his earlier, abstract work, like Land of Somer (Chapter Obsolescence). In his contemporary reimagining of classical myth, the muses appear as billowing, colored clouds (see As Above, So Below), and Apollo takes the form of light, as in Relying Purely on Courage. Jonny, meanwhile, illustrates Strand’s puckish delight in mixing the high with the low, appearing in the sublime, saturated landscapes as either a tiny, spiky-haired cartoon head (as in Are You Apollo?) or else glimpsed in extreme close-up as a fan of radiating blond peaks.
Strand’s practice took a notable turn in 1993, when, in response to a friend’s death from AIDS, he created an installation of preserved and subtly embellished facial peels (otherwise-ephemeral byproducts of his daily skin care ritual.) In 2008, he incorporated several of these haunting, mask-like objects into The Oracle of the Golden Temple, a sculpture that brought into three dimensions his reinvigoration of the ancient world’s architectural forms. That piece, which also included a contractor friend’s leftover gold marble and a found sculpture of a human head, started out as a kind of joke (an exercise in making art out of “dubious materials”), but ended up heralding a new and ongoing body of related sculptural work – see, for example, The Oracle of Mysteries.
Strand’s ink paintings, meanwhile, persist. Representations of his facial peels hover over a teeming sea in 2012’s A Chorus of Oracles, forming a bridge between his sculptures and his most recent series, An Epic of Distance and Time. In nearly 60 pieces and counting, Strand has filled his paper to its edges with luminous seas populated by robust, undulating waves that appear so tangible, so corporeal, they look as though they’d been carved. Neo-Oceanus, perhaps? There’s no sign of Jonny Strange or anyone else in this vast, drowned world, where the waves alone remain.
Matthew Piper, Aug 2015