Wayne State exhibits Detroit artist Jon Strand's wave paintings

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

At 70, Detroiter Jon Strand is an artist in a hurry. 

The Corktown resident is sprinting to produce as many of his pointillist paintings as possible — unbelievably painstaking work — before glaucoma steals the rest of his sight. He's already blind in his left eye. The right isn't so hot, either. 

Despite that, Strand has a solo show of new work at the Art Department Gallery at Wayne State titled "Oracles, Temples and Waves ...and a dragon called Raoul," that will be up through Aug. 24.

You might expect despair in an artist facing blindness, but that's not Strand — a small furnace of determination and unblinkered optimism. 

"I’m doing the best art of my life," he said, chatting in his pleasingly cluttered loft, "which is kind of poignant, given that I have to put 12 prescription drops in my eyes from morning to night. One of them," he added, "burns like crazy."

Painter Jon Strand, 70, works on one of his pointillist 'waves' art pieces in his art studio in the Corktown.

Strand's work divides roughly into two parts -- his pointillist ink paintings, and a foray into three-dimensions that he launched in 2008 with his "Oracle" series, most of which feature skulls or face masks framed in small classical temples crafted by friend Bobby LaRose.

Strand's paintings in the show, which can take up to 1,000 hours, mostly depict swelling, multi-toned waves, and are simultaneously lush and unbelievably precise. 

"To get the color density I want takes six layers," Strand said, each layer comprised of innumerable ink-pen dots. 

"Everyone thinks my use of pointillism is some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder," he added, "but it’s not. It never has been. I started doing art this way because I was good at it, and I never looked back."

In her forward to the show's catalog, Marion "Mame" Jackson, Wayne State art professor emerita,  marveled that the artist applies "thousands, perhaps millions, of tiny points of ink to establish the illusion of undulating waves upon an ocean." 

There's a dizzying quality to these vaulting, intersecting curves. Matthew Piper, editor-in-chief of the Detroit arts journal Essay'd, aptly summarized their visual power in his catalog essay:

"One nearly drowns in these waves." 

Indeed, Piper reads both death and life in Strand's tumbling seas -- visions of the all-consuming universe, at once cold, indifferent, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

That Strand's paintings are gorgeous can't be denied. But interestingly, they have a cartoonish, graphic-design quality to them that, far from trivializing the work, adds to its brazen individuality. 

Raoul the dragon in "Journey to the Mysterious Blue Harbour" by Jon Strand. The dragon figure was crafted for the artist by his friend Jeff Hucul.

Fans of long standing will wonder whether "Jonny Strange," the tow-headed everyman from Strand's earlier work, appears in the Wayne State show.

Alas, he does not. Much like Frodo and the elves at the end of "The Lord of the Rings," Strand says Jonny Strange has moved to a different realm from which there is no return.

At odds with the whimsical tone of both Jonny and Raoul the dragon (who makes only one dazzling appearance, rising from the waves, and was created by the artist’s friend Jeff Hucul) are the "Oracle" temples. 

These little Greco-Roman structures act like mausoleums, framing skulls and fragments of faces, and conjure up a completely different mood than Strand's mesmerizing waves. 

It will come as no surprise, perhaps, that they amount to Strand's speculation on AIDS, and the ravaging it worked on the gay community and the world at large. 

Strand has always worked in series — whether the waves, Jonny Strange, or his temples — endlessly playing with the same idea, turning it over, reshaping and reimagining it.

He points out that Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral over 40 times, and did dozens of versions of his garden at Givenchy.

"Monet said if you investigate the same subject matter over and over again," said the artist who never studied art, and produced 106 Jonny Strange paintings, "you always see something new."

Strand's bent on pushing forward. 

"I only have a little bit of time left to see," he said, "so it’s got to be about my art." 

(313) 222-6021


Jon Strand: 'Oracles, Temples and Waves ...and a dragon called Raoul'

Through Aug. 24

Art Department Gallery, 150 Art Building, Wayne State University, Detroit

Noon-5 p.m., Tues.-Fri.

(313) 993-7813