Justin Strom’s Solo Show Self/Nonself: Recursive and Volatile is Delicious Yet Problematic by Rowan Fulton
Your eye traces jutting topographies, deep dark caverns, and shiny, candy-colored exploding forms, as you search unsuccessfully for clues to a firm sense of scale relative to your body. You’re at Space Camp, a new gallery project for an exhibition curated by ICA Baltimore, and you’ve found yourself absorbed in one of Justin Strom’s chaotic collage-dreamscapes.
Experiencing these works in person is akin to stepping inside a kaleidoscope. Forms are stationary, but there is a sense of halted movement, as though particles have been scattered haphazardly in space and frozen that way to create a unique image. In part, this is because bodies float, unbound to any surfaces, but also because there is implied movement within the bodies themselves. Through digitally fabricated textures, they appear to ruffle, wave, and even explode into infinite tiny fragments. Beneath the glossy layer of resin which coats each of Strom’s prints, this dizzying kinetic energy is held frozen in place.
While Strom uses a relatively consistent approach to fabrication, color, and design, his images do not hold to any one definite scale. While some images read as still lifes, others indicate sprawling terrain and vast caverns. This results in an appealingly disorienting experience for the viewer, and reveals connections to the artist’s interest in microbiology. While some pieces allow the viewer to examine this imaginary kaleidoscopic world of floating bodies, others go one step further, revealing a microscopic view of worlds within bodies.
One of Strom’s techniques for establishing scale is to integrate nameable objects in his scenes. One which appears again and again is wallpaper. Classical and austere, it provides a strange, domestic interior for the artist’s colorful alien bodies, and lends a note of playful surrealism to the scenes. What are these bizarre objects doing in what could be an Edwardian home? The contrasts invite questions into content and scale.
In the two weakest pieces in the show, Strom collages digital bodies on top of black-and-white photographs of hands. There’s something gimmicky about rainbow of mush shooting out of a hand, and the use of a black and white photograph with its own particular sense of light and space flattens the colorful digital forms rather than integrating them into the same environment as the hands.
In terms of scale, the images with hands make the exploding bodies look like little baubles, decorative objects that could fit in your palm. This doesn’t necessarily diminish them, but I find myself much preferring the scenes in which I’m provided fewer clues as to what I’m looking at.
As much as I enjoyed these works individually, I find it necessary to point out that their presence in the gallery space felt somewhat cold and detached. Part of this must be related to the unmistakably digital aesthetic of these works, which we are accustomed to seeing on a screen, but it also has to do with the space itself.
For those who have not yet been to Space Camp, it’s got quite a bit of floor space, particularly for a single artist, and seems best suited for sculptural work or large scale paintings. At Strom’s show, I felt no desire to step back and make use of this potential distance, as the resin-coated prints were very reflective from afar and also relatively intimate in scale. Perhaps this is nit-picky, but I found myself wishing to see this promising space better activated by the artwork.
Overall, the problems exist in this show are redeemed by the formal deliciousness of the works. From the juicy scarlet that dominates the color palette to the almost basilican treatment of light and symmetry in certain pieces, Strom’s work is undeniably beautiful.
Justin Strom: Self/Nonself: Recursive and Volatile will be on view at Space Camp, at 16 West North Ave, until December 20. Hours are 12-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Author Rowan Fulton is a Baltimore-based artist and writer.