‘You want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?’ teenage videographer and voyeur-next-door Ricky Fitts asks in Sam Mendes’ film American Beauty (1999), before revealing a hand-held video of an empty plastic bag floating and whirling in the wind. This focus on a mundane moment and a nondescript object was not intended to be ironic, but it was suggestive of a telling trend in contemporary art of finding beauty in the banal. For Jack Strange banality lies at the core of his tricksy, Conceptualist practice. A recent graduate of London’s Slade School of Art, Strange has produced a variety of sculptures, videos, works on paper and photographs – among them Plastic Bag (2008), a digital print of a shredded and impaled bag flailing on a stretch of jagged barbed wire – that recall Fitts’ ‘artsy’ backyard cinéma verité but which provide a cheeky, wistful and at times revealing subtext.
Strange’s solo New York début, entitled ‘Wallowing’, was a clever conundrum of a show that indulged the various possibilities of appropriation and the Duchampian found object. The 23 new works range from the ready-made (lighting fixtures, coat hangers) to the handmade (collages, ink-on-paper sketches), and all are equally quirky, with varying degrees of visual wit. The exhibition was a catalogue of the artist’s explorations with everyday household items alongside manipulated media and elements found in nature. The result was a perplexing yet inexplicably satisfying mash-up of ideas, images and materials. The exhibition opened with a row of seven small-format black and white collages entitled Spunk (2008). The explicit title seems to promise the patterns and splatterings of ejaculate (it’s really just white paper cut-outs mounted on black paper) and the renderings read more like Hans Arp-like abstractions than money shots. Similarly, Distinguishing Feature (2008) – a minuscule clay impression of a pigmented skin mole (replete with straggly hairs) – was monumental on an otherwise blank white wall, transforming the expansive surface into a figurative body. In both pieces the literal titles coupled with the scale of the works emphasized the discreet humour that defines them. In contrast to this subtle spatial push-pull, Family Visit (2008), a large installation located in an adjacent side-gallery, consisted of three plinths plastered with stickers of holographic rainbows, monochromatic bull’s-eye targets and chevrons, in addition to neon-light abstractions. The plinths were placed opposite TV monitors that showed the same patterns found on the stickers. Inflected with an Op-art elegance, the effect was as dizzyingly hypnotic as it was enlightening. Strange’s play with perception turned the act of observation back in on itself, shifting the focus from object to viewer.
With his sardonic yet direct approach Strange uses the simplest of means to evocative ends in works such as g (2008), a Macintosh laptop with a large ball of lead resting firmly and unyieldingly on the keyboard’s letter ‘g’. The effect is an infinite stream of ‘g’s stuttering madly across the screen, line after line and page after page – a typographic tic that terminates only when the laptop inevitably crashes. Similarly, in There is Always Wind in a Tree Somewhere Everyday All the Time (2008) each word of the original phrase is handwritten across a sheet of notebook paper in all four cardinal directions – north, east, south and west. While repetition at times undermines these works, their modest charm is overwhelming and undeniable. For example, in one of the exhibition’s highlights, For the Greenman (with The Curst Sons, Alpha, Giovanni Manzini and Mr. Clack) (2008) Strange presented a four-part DVD consisting of a 90-second sequence from Ang Lee’s film Hulk (2003), showing the comic-strip superhero bounding impossibly across the spectacular rocky canyons of Utah. Strange looped and synched the film clip to four very different soundtracks: a hillbilly rock group, a 14-year-old DJ, a classical pianist and an electronic noise artist. The work lays bare how the viewer’s emotions and interpretive faculties are so easily formed and manipulated, seemingly without one’s awareness. In most cases Strange’s ideas of subversion are solid and promising, while at times his off-the-cuff execution and freshman stylings run perilously close to the cute and self-indulgent (a necklace made of the laundry-washed sales receipts discovered balled up in trouser pockets might be a case in point). Then again, as Strange proposes, ‘the logic of no logic can be quite logical after all’ – an optimistic spin on the work and the place from which he operates that may actually be fairly accurate.