Simon Strong: Telling Tales - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

Despite the narrative pull of Simon Strong’s photographs, the stories they tell never wind up neatly. That‘s just part of the joy writes Tracey Clement. The conversation never has to come to an end.

Looking at Simon Strong’s incredibly lush, intricately orchestrated and heavily manipulated photographs, it’s clear that he is an artist in total control of his medium, both behind the camera and in front of the computer screen. You would never guess that as a young hopeful, straight out of high school, he was rejected from his first tertiary study preference, a degree in photography. Undeterred, he accepted a place at Swinburne and graduated in 1995 with a Bachelor of Graphic Design.

Although photography remains Strong’s first love (a passion kindled by his father’s old school Pentax, way back in the pre-digital 1980s) he has never regretted his background in graphic design. In fact, it was the working methodologies he learned in this discipline which facilitated his first foray into the art world: a collaboration with fellow photoshop aficionado Charmaine Hardy. As Strong explains: “The ability to conceive and plan a series of works, and collaborate with another person, are all things you learn and practice in design.”

The duo began working together in 1998, under the name Hardy & Strong. In 2005, after eight years and nine collaborative exhibitions in three states, they went their separate ways. Strong embarked on a solo career and by the time he presented his first one person show in 2007, at John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne, he had emerged as an artist with a very distinctive and dramatic personal style.

Strong’s densely layered images resemble stills from films that deliberately cross the boundaries of genre: post-apocalyptic sci-fi meets gothic horror with a dash of fantasy romance. Strong deliberately tries to infuse a sense of ambiguity and latent potential into each photograph. “For me, my images give a glimpse of one moment in what could be a continuing story-line … I want people to look at an image and wonder how that person came to be where they are in the picture, and where they might be going or what might happen afterwards.”

In the world Strong has envisioned, it seems that anything could happen. In Touch the Sky (2008) a naked levitating couple pass a glowing orb between them while a solitary swan looks on, all set against a luminous sky. In Even If You Leave, I Will Always Be With You (2007), a scantily clad woman – part resuscitated Ophelia, part vengeful nymph – hovers above a lily-fringed pond in a derelict house. In Way Out (2008), desert sand has swept in and brought a busy urban motorway to a standstill.

Despite their seductive beauty, these images have a decidedly dark edge. Nature seems to be exerting her inexorable power over culture; they can easily be read as an indictment of man’s hubris and a prescient warning of climate change. Yet Strong doesn’t set out to convey a message. While he says “if I make something that makes a comment, I don’t mind that,” he readily admits that he doesn’t hold strong political views. Instead, Strong’s photographic imagery is fuelled by childhood memories, strange dreams and a fertile imagination.

Strong’s photographs have a long gestation period. He is not a prolific artist. Not only is the work itself extremely labour intensive, but his ideas go through a lengthy editing process. Strong takes thousands of photographs and rejects numerous half-formed images before producing only a few fully resolved artworks each year.

In 2008, Alasdair Foster, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, included Strong in his group show, Phantasia. The exhibition toured Australia before going to Paris in 2009 as part of the Photoqaui biennale, a moment which Strong describes as his career highlight to date, although he could just as easily named having his work collected by Artbank or the National Gallery of Victoria.

In Strong’s newest works, man still seems to be at odds with nature: figures are transformed by fire into charcoal and entwined by vines. But the artist also continues to work collaboratively, this time with painter Robert Doble. As Strong explains: “I think the creative dialogue between artists can produce completely new ideas that the individual artist may not have conceived of.” With an attitude like this, Simon Strong is bound to continue going from strength to strength.

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