Here Everything is Still Floating:
Mary Ann Strandell’s Prints
Catalogue essay by William V. Ganis
According to Shinto mythology, the Floating Bridge connected heaven and an inchoate earth. It was the place from which the earth was given form by Izanagi and Izanami, the ancestors of all mankind. Strandell chooses this creation analogy for her a title because she, too, works with a formless world in which everything is floating—from the images’ heightened illusionistic space to their indeterminate relationships. There is an obvious reference to the Japanese imagery she includes in her work, many of which come from wood-block prints otherwise known asUkiyo-e, or “Pictures of the Floating World.” As in Strandell’s work, these prints dealt with sensual subjects and indefinite space.
While the lenticular optics are certainly seductive, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as mere eye candy. Taking cues from Yacov Agam, Jesús Rafael Soto and other optical artists, Strandell at first worked through the obvious or inherited ideas regarding optical perception. Her earliest lenticular works dealt in Op Art’s high-key colors and geometries. This is not to say that she’s abandoned these forms altogether. In her current prints, they become part of the collaged layering and a reference to a past art of perceptual phenomena. Strandell now uses heightened illusion to manifest smart and improbable effects. For instance, she will layer in her own hand-drawn outlines of a Shunga print—from certain points of view, the drawings seem to float without a ground. In some works she adds a repoussoir device that explodes the perceptive lull we achieve in rationalizing the rest of the space. In many ways, she layers spatial ambiguities on top on one another. Perspective drawing, after all, is a device for translating the three-dimensional world into two dimensions and paintings reveal both an illusionistic quality and medium facticity. Japanese wood-block prints have convincing uses of space that are often calculatedly interrupted in order to announce or expose the artistry. Strandell deposits all of these figures into protean strata by using imaging software. The digital process allows for realistic representation as it accurately captures textures and nuances of drawn lines and paint surfaces even as it flattens everything into a photographic uniformity. The overlaying lenticular corduroy lenses also paradoxically level the imagery into a certain presentational sameness even as it they are responsible for illusionistic space on another level.
The disparate images may seem at first to have little to do with one another, and Strandell’s modernist interiors, Chinoiserie, Shunga drawings and geometries may evoke the deconstructionist illustrations of Davis Salle or John Baldassari who defied us to make meaning of their works. Unlike these predecessors, Strandell offers an underlying logic—much of her imagery (repeated across lenticulars, paintings and drawings) shows intersections of East and West—Ukiyo-e prints were famously exported to Europe and revolutionized artistic practice there; Meissen figurines are evidence of European attempts to make Asian porcelain—they also show fantasy renderings of Asian subjects made through European sensibilities. Hydroelectric dams and modernist structures are indicative of Western technologies that mark the Great Leap Forward or the present skylines of Tokyo and Shanghai. The layering of all these elements is complex—I liken Strandell’s ability to transfix to entering a Dim Sum palace in a big city—one inevitably decorated with glowing-eye dragons and baroque chandeliers; mass-manufactured modern chairs and lacquerware; chopsticks comingling with forks; and the Japanese-American fortune cookie that has paradoxically become THE signifier of Chinese cuisine.
Strandell’s work also marks the globalization of the art world. Contemporaries such as Xu Bing or Do-Ho Suh fuse time-honored calligraphy, Korean architecture, and other aspects of Asian cultures to American conceptualism and Continental philosophies. In the US, artists from cultures around the world have introduced new forms, ideas, and stories to the ongoing narratives of contemporary art—vestige avant-garde sensibilities demand such novelty. The Chinese-American artist Wenda Gu has mused that cultural-exchange is inherently and inevitably first a misunderstanding; he and his peers have made mistranslation and cultural opacity an important part of their work. By offering and layering these East-West confluences Strandell offers a parallel Western perspective—one especially poignant for our time given the ascendency of China’s commercial and political influence and a global economy marked by interdependence. Her floating bridge offers a perspective from which we may perceive the history and present of ever-changing cultural exchanges, misunderstandings, power shifts and economic influences.
An art historian, critic, and professor at Wells College, William V. Ganis investigates the relationships among art, exhibiting institutions, media technologies and the market. As an art critic, he has contributed reviews, articles and interviews to Art in America, Border Crossings, Glass Quarterly, Contemporary, and Sculpture magazines. His book, Andy Warhol’s Serial Photography, was published by Cambridge University Press. He is the director of Wells College String Room Gallery, Aurora, NY.