A house sits in a quiet street, bathed in black paint but for a circular white void in the centre of its facade. It’s an eerie sight – a seemingly perfect family dwelling hollowed out, as if some twisted emptiness is radiating from within.
The image is from Brooklyn-based Australian artist Ian Strange’s Suburban series, premiering this week at the NGV Studio space at Federation Square. Suburban is the culmination of two years of intense work by the artist, exploring and deconstructing the notion and the iconography of suburban home. Spanning seven houses across six American states, the exhibition uses photography, video and large-scale fragments physically taken from the locations to study common perceptions of middleclass suburban culture. “It’s looking at the isolation of the suburbs and condensing the home into an icon,” Strange says.
The artist’s fascination with the subject stems from his upbringing in suburban Perth. Strange says that he felt a detachment from his surroundings and strained to push the boundaries, an urge that manifested itself in pursuing graffiti and then street art. Working under the moniker Kid Zoom, graffiti gave Strange freedom, though what to do with it later became a problem.
When Strange relocated to New York in 2010 to work under the guidance of renowned street artist Ron English, he soon realised that his experience of the suburbs was all he had. “There’s always an urban context to graffiti and street art so basically I got to New York as an artist and realised I had nothing to say.”
It was a huge turning point. Strange returned to Australia the following year to plant what would be the first seed in his Suburban journey – an installation on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island. Titled Home, the project took the form of a reconstruction of Strange’s childhood house, made from only his memories and a clutch of old photographs. Painted with a skull and accompanied by a film featuring fire and destroyed vehicles, it was a direct work encased in the angst still lingering from Strange’s formative years.
Suburban is a stride forward, broader in approach and more mature in expression. Yet the rage hasn’t been stifled. Instead, it simmers below the surface of each image with a sense of foreboding, more attuned to a universal dissatisfaction with middleclass structures.
The American home was hence the perfect setting for the project, capturing the suburbs of pop-culture fame with cookie-cutter clarity. “The thing with American suburbia in particular is that is has a familiarity to a lot of places around the world because you have that ideal being projected everywhere,” he says. “You can make the most impact because you’re playing against an icon as opposed to a specific house. There’s an immediate emotional resonance there.”
Emotions are exactly what Strange was met with as he moved into to each neighbourhood. From Detroit and Ohio to New Jersey, Alabama, New York and New Hampshire, Strange was met with inspiring reactions from the communities surrounding his architectural subjects. Though the neighbours wouldn’t have been out of line to express outrage at Strange’s undertaking – to be fair, he was painting and in some cases setting fire to their streets – he says the stories they had to share were overwhelmingly rousing. From sharing their own histories to backgrounding the neighbourhoods and homes themselves, Strange experienced an unexpected personal reconnaissance.
“The experience of living in a studio and having this cold, calculated idea of what I wanted to make, to actually going out into reality has been really interesting.” After all, Strange was putting a final mark on homes that had already been vacated in preparation for reassignment or demolition. Each photograph represents an historic account as much as it does a symbol.
It’s this understanding that Strange says will see Suburban continue to grow. Having already taken two years to realise, the body of work showing at NGV is a multifaceted canvas Strange has gradually cultivated throughout his journey. And if the scale of Suburban is impressive, who knows how deep the artist will get. As he says, “This is just the start.”
Ian Strange: Suburban opens on July 27 and shows until September 15 at NGV Studio, The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square.