The subject of landscape has of course been a major preoccupation of Australian artists, from the golden romanticism of Streeton and melancholia of McCubbin to the starkness of Drysdale and Nolan, but Strong’s landscapes are essentially different from those motionless scenes beneath a relentless sun. For they are in turbulent, even violent motion, with water, bush and sky represented in strong contrasts of tone and broad slashing strokes of colour.
A Step Away from the Pace by Ken Strong
In this they recall the paintings of another great landscape artist, a favourite of Strong’s though not Australian – J.M.W. Turner, whose light-filled seascapes relished the romantic drama of nature in convulsion. And there is another important echo of Turner in Strong’s work, and that is the poignant addition of a diminutive human presence within the dazzling scene – in Strong’s paintings a solitary boat, an isolated building or one or two tiny human figures, almost invisible in the turmoil, as here in A step away from the pace. These recall paintings like Turner’s Snowstorm, steam-boat off a harbour mouth, in which a ship seems overwhelmed by the elements, or, even more redolent in view of its fiery palette, Slaves, throwing overboard the dead and dying, with its insignificant humans helpless in the gigantic seas. For in terms of colouration, Strong views this drama through the lens of Impressionism and the more livid Post-Impressionism of artists such as Vlaminck and Soutine. Like Turner, Strong emphasizes the contrast between the human presence and the natural surroundings by painting the former in precise, geometric strokes, unlike the free form brushwork of their context.
Harbour Negotiation by Ken Strong
It’s tempting to read this dichotomy as an example of what Robert Hughes in The Art of Australia called ‘a metaphor of the psyche’, a commentary on our insignificance within the vast and timeless landscape, or perhaps, less tragically, our delight in solitude within an all-enveloping nature. There is also another, more personal, interpretation that might be made, for Strong trained and has practised as an engineer, and, as I have myself experienced as an architect, the discipline of mastering engineering or architectural draughtsmanship, meticulous and precise, is hard to shake off when presented with the freedom of oils and canvas. In this light, it’s possible to see the evolution of Strong’s painting over the years as a struggle towards his current liberation in this stimulating exhibition.
‘Lifting the Darkness – The Emergence of Light’, an exhibition by Ken Strong is showing at Cooks Hill Galleries until 26th June, 2017. Browse the digital exhibition catalogue here.
Barry Maitland, 2017.
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