‘The Aesthetics of Ruination’

by Craig Malyon – Originally published in Art Almanac – March issue, 2017

“I like directness and aggressiveness – I’m not afraid of being impactful… The home represents a place of safety and security, so it depends on where the home is placed for the viewer.  For me a marking on a house isn’t an act against that specific house, it’s an act against the ideas of what the home represents. It presents larger ideas of the home as societal cohesion, safety, family and community. Then there is the idea of the imagined home, the home of childhood, these poetics that we have inside us, that we carry with us.” – Ian Strange

Ian Strange’s interventions on domestic suburban houses traverse our memories. In his latest exhibition ‘Shadow’ the treatment of dwellings becomes an interlocutor of our most personal experience – ‘home’. There is an acute awareness of the emotive connection the audience has for the home and his authorisation of these images and videos become a visual register for both the familiar and mysterious. He deconstructs the ‘site’ as landscape, ‘intervention’ as medium and ‘conceptual index’ as domestic experiences in these ubiquitous structures. From his early work, akin to graffiti and street art, there has been a psychological and aesthetic shift over the years but what remains central is recognition of the vulnerability of the house.

“The symbol of the home, both real and imagined, is very important”, said the artist, “I like the idea that it is our first metaphor – how you understand inside and out, of lightness and darkness, the extension of yourself, it becomes a way understanding of the world.”

Strange presents encounters of suburbia that are at once genuinely astonishing and seemingly archetypal. His work has always sought to extirpate obvious narratives and occupy a space within an ambiguity that both transgresses and augments the sinister qualities of suburbia. The exhibition title alludes to phenomenological motif, a stain on the landscape, an affliction to our personal memories, impairment on the utopic modern idealism of the urban sprawl and the ruined view of the perceived safety of our homes.

Ironically, to talk about the stasis of the suburbs we met in inner city Sydney. Nearby his ‘pop-up’ exhibition will be staged in Chippendale, a historic area, once industrial and unseemly, now experiencing a heavy gentrification marked by artisanal cafés, galleries to investment in high-density living. “You read the red brick house as an absurdist object that populates the desert, yet within the context of the rest of suburbia they are not absurd… the suburban home got me thinking how Australia allowed denial of the landscape and by painting them black it is an action of imaging them not there, erasing them. I think about them as negative space. As the viewer inspects the photographs they realise an action has been taken against the house. It is the action of painting the house and an implied element of performance.”

Strange knowingly plays with absurdity within the image through performative actions, that evoke a critical evaluation of the suburban house. The homes selected by Strange strike an accord with the viewer’s sense of self and place, yet remain completely anonymous, the title alluding only to the street name and not the inhabitants. For many, the suburban house instills identity (personal and social). In this series he presents a mordant realisation of suburbia in the post-mining boom of Western Australia. The red brick home comes to symbolise loss within this context. The façade (or skin) of the house presents a texture of decline and the work makes it difficult to avoid the current sense of social regression and the loss of the post war idealism that catalysed suburban housing globally. The blacking out of the houses in ‘Shadow’ absorbs the audience’s own perceptual discrimination. This void draws out a new consciousness that endows the depicted houses with their own unique subjectivity, surpassing its practical function to operate as powerful metaphor.

The marking of houses is not new and the artist is quick to point out the historical precedent from doorways during Passover to the condemnations of homes during the bubonic plague. Dwellings have been provocatively inscribed from slanderous graffiti on homes during the Nazi ghettoisation of the Jewish quarter to the pleas for help, more recently, written on the flooded houses during the devastation of hurricane Katrina in the USA. He explained “I’m interested in what the psychological shift is, how you realise the house once it has been treated this way as it attacks the imaginary boarders we draw out with our homes.”

For Strange the house evolves into its own being, residing in both a physical and psychological manner that generates its own austere transcendence of prosaic suburbia. His images are bathed in a twilight of personal enchantment and disenchantment that unwittingly reflects current ideologies tempered by dread. Look no further than to the rise of Donald Trump or the landscape of post GFC cities. ‘Shadow’ isolates a fragment of the suburban world identified as safe and familiar to the audience, replacing it with an affectation of anxiety and an aesthetic of ruin. This ongoing global body of work from its origin in the USA and later in Christchurch, New Zealand to Australia reveals a universal currency of the ‘home’. The equivocality of ‘Shadow’ encapsulates Strange’s visual logic to make art that is compelling in its operation as personal investigations, intervening actions and psychosocial critique.

Craig Malyon is an educator and writer based in Sydney. The article was originally published in Art Almanac March issue 2017 on the occasion of the Sydney exhibition of ‘SHADOW’.