Sincerity and authenticity have long been out of fashion in much of contemporary art, yet for certain individuals, these values not only retain their luster but also shine with a fresh light against the contrasting background of artistic quotation, replication, and pseudo-sophistication.
It would be hard to find a better example of an artist for whom sincerity and authenticity continued to work than Ray Strong. The impression left by Ray Strong: American Artist, the beautiful and learned new book on his career that has just been published, fully justifies the claim that Strong is the most influential artist in the history of Santa Barbara.
It’s also, from cover to cover, a sheer delight, melding half a dozen fascinating scholarly essays with hundreds of pages of exquisite full-color reproductions of the work. Without Strong, not only would there be no Oak Group, but it’s likely that there would be no distinctive association of Santa Barbara with top-quality plein air landscape painting. Such was the generosity of the man as a teacher, mentor, and friend to other artists that his influence can be seen everywhere among the brightest lights of our art scene, from compatriots Arturo Tello and Michael Drury to innovators such as Nicole Strasburg, Hank Pitcher, and Angela Perko. On Thursday, May 5, Sullivan Goss will celebrate the publication with a party and an exhibition that will continue until July 3.
As readers of these essays by Nancy Dustin Wall Mouré, Sandra Francis, Martha Lee Owen, Donald J. Haggerty, Dennis M. Power, and Michael Whitt will discover, Strong was not so much a man of contradictions as he was someone within whom seeming oppositions could be reconciled. A wanderer who traversed Oregon, California, Texas, and New York with his paints, canvas, and brush, Strong nevertheless continually expressed a profound rootedness and awareness of place. He was never a modern artist — something that cost him considerably in regard to career advancement, especially within the academy — yet he was always entirely in the moment, and today his work is the opposite of dated. Although the sinuous contours of his beloved golden hills remain the most vivid memory of his work in most observers’ minds, leafing through the pages of Ray Strong: American Artist reveals that he was equally at home with the undersides of cloudbanks, the rippling surfaces of the ocean, and even the cracked concentric circles of cut tree stumps.
While Strong’s images are highly evocative of the early 20th century, the genesis of the Ray Strong Project belongs 100 percent to the 21st. Faced with the challenge of producing not only this gorgeous monograph but also a catalogue raisonné listing every known work by this extremely prolific artist, Frank Goss and Jeremy Tessmer chose an innovative response and funded the entire project through a Kickstarter campaign.
Much more than a coffee-table book, and as beautiful an object as anything published by Rizzoli, Ray Strong: American Artist is an essential document of Santa Barbara’s most important painter.