Labor-intensive, visually compelling works by the Bahamian artist seem to challenge outworn heroes and cultural assumptions of the Western canon, yet some of Strachan’s simplest pieces may be his most pleasing.
Although Strachan’s artistic means are familiar — favoring installations, collage and repurposed signage — he has an extremely effective visual style, and to say that his work is labor-intensive would be a vast understatement. Take the three giant photographic portraits that are part of the artist’s Constellation series, depicting diverse historical personalities he considers unjustly neglected. Here, spotlit in a darkened room and reflected like the Lincoln Memorial in a temporary reflecting pond placed on the floor, are Everest climber Tenzing Norgay, composer Butch Morris and Queen Min of Korea.
pigment, graphite, mounted to white translucent acrylic. (Mark Woods)
I, for one, could do with a bit less complexity. The artist includes Mao, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama in the vast array making up 19th-century Queen Min, but why Stalin, George Wallace and John Lennon, not to mention drones, Coke bottles and automatic weapons? The giant pond is also perplexing, a mannerism that is repeated throughout the show, as if the artworks themselves aren’t strong enough without the addition of stage lighting and watery reflections.
What redeems these pieces is Strachan’s design and color skill as a collage artist (surrealist collages didn’t make rational sense, either) and the fun he has subverting the text. Using the same typeface as the original, Strachan randomly inserts his own encyclopedia entries between more innocuous fare. On the “A” page, for instance, he includes an entry on the Ain Aouda secret prison that describes it as a suspected “black site” in Morocco that the CIA “reportedly paid the Moroccan state $20 million for the building of,” sitting alongside descriptions of the Ainu (indigenous people of Japan) and aircraft camouflage. We find ourselves hunting for the ersatz entries; after a while we start questioning more of the text than not, surely the artist’s ultimate point.
My favorite works in the exhibit are the simplest, when we can enjoy Strachan’s command of his craft without sorting through information overload or worrying that we’re not “getting it.” Two neon signs deliver social commentary — “I Belong Here” is exploding, as if in an artillery barrage, while “Us, We, Them” interprets tribalism as a Venn diagram. “Seated Panchen Lama” is a glass sculpture, a block in which a transparent replica of a child’s circulatory system has been somehow embedded. The ghostlike human presence is Strachan’s memorial to a Buddhist victim of China’s occupation of Tibet, and haunting as it is, it is the exhibition image which lodges the longest in memory.