John Armstrong

John Armstrong
Affirmative Paintings


Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.1

I find nothing so pleasurable as the idea of wandering through a picture gallery jammed with easel paintings — landscapes sublime or pastorale, moralizing narratives, still lifes of domestic simplicity or of regal groaning boards, portraits of physical beauty and social power. I am transported by this narrative of desire to another kind of gallery, the picture book, a source of infinite juvenile delight. The picture book was my first door to the known world, the world of facts; the encyclopaedic visual detailing of the sciences, geography, illustrated histories and biblical narratives was, and remains for me, electricity to the mind.

Easel painting — the term itself seems to creak — conjures smells of fresh oil paint, turpentine, linseed oil, and images of hirsute male artists, with brushes and palette in hand. Picture books exude their own antique charm; the crack of the glued binding upon opening, the smell of the paper and ink. I am reminded of the sensual theatre of it all, and the surge of satisfaction that accompanied it. The love of paintings and books is a sublimated desire: a redirected frenzy to consume both fantasy and reality in large amounts.

John Armstrong's series of "Affirmative" paintings are about this kind of desire. They recall the charms of traditional easel painting, in their compact size and often oval shape, seeming just the thing to hang in the dining room of that narrow Victorian townhouse. Each painting is an ostentatious display of oil paint, thickly applied, scraped and scored, and gathering at the edges of the raw linen canvas. His media refers back to nineteenth-century academic methods, but his handling is contemporary — paint being a fetish now (since the Abstract Expressionists decided to drip and trowel it on) and no longer simply a medium with which to draw and colour.2

A painting, like a written text, carries within it a history of colours and textures and characteristic patterns. Call it style. A measure of interest that a painting holds for us may be determined by the degree to which the artist is capable of juggling the various lateral references that intersect in the creation of the image field. So we know that oil paint is a product of the Italian Renaissance, pre-mixed colours in tubes a product of nineteenth-century France, the canvas support a Venetian contribution. The appearance of text, the oval shapes of the canvases, and the often regular, hatched application of the paint recalls the early avant-garde works of the Cubists Braque and Picasso in the second decade of the twentieth century. The palette knife technique and the extremely unctuous paint application recall the rebel Quebec abstractionist Paul-Emile Borduas.

Each choice of media and technique signifies a history, and tells another story. Painting has been around, which unfortunately, is sometimes held against it. To paint, like engaging in any of the arts, is really a positive act, the point where human beings rise above the purely animal functions of eating, sleeping and breathing, and — not despairing over "this mortal coil" — give it a sort of romantic caché. Curiously, this act of painting has been anything but affirmative lately. It's been backed into the corners that describe hesitation, ambivalence, and tentativeness — reduced to all of those scratchy, doodly, sketchy parts that signal the uncongealed and immature. Painting as a rule today isn't affirmative, it's insecure and neurotic.

But Armstrong to his credit, pushes back hard. OK, OK, OK, Jim Dandy, YES, and Chill, are anything but indecisive. Centrally composed, (or in the case of Chill forming part of a centrally focussed triangular composition) Armstrong's neo-positivism fairly jumps off the canvases. And the words lead us to different places as well — to painting's history as a commercial art, where formerly a dextrous hand lent charm and material desirability to the word, rendering letters clean and efficient or luxurious and languorous, as the case may warrant.

OK, OK, OK . . . it could be an admission, as in, "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten, I know I said I'd do it, I just haven't gotten around to it yet." Or it could be breathy, drawn out, and savoured: Ok, Ok, Ok . . . . Meaning better than okay. Meaning yes. Or maybe not. There is something dutiful and less than sanguine about these "Ok's" as they march across the canvas. Jim Dandy and Chill, on the other hand, make reference to colloquial expressions of contentment and satisfaction. The rustic expression "jim dandy" seems to circle above a caricature of an abstract-expressionist painting, making light of the high drama of that genre, similar to the way the Pop artist Jasper Johns poked gentle fun at his gestural and existential colleagues. What is "jim dandy" about Jim Dandy? It returns to us the pleasure that we can still obtain from older media, older techniques, and older genre, without the ideological baggage and the stale cigarette smoke.

YES is so bloody affirmative it hurts. Nothing ambiguous about this. Armstrong has seen fit to dress the word up in the most unremittingly cheerful typeface. And unlike the plodding and regimented OK's, his YES's form an arc of delighted self satisfaction. But it is worth identifying this YES — to grand gestures and affections, to unabashed appetites for everything in books and in paintings. YES, to art and to a culture of infinite interconnectivity. YES, to fact and fantasy, to taste, to touch and above all YES, to pleasure . . . .

" . . . and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."3

Charles Baudelaire, "Invitation au Voyage," in Le Fleurs du Mal, Classiques Larousse, Paris: 1973, pp. 40-1.
And in case one were to miss this reference in the handling of the materials, Armstrong provides us, in Jim Dandy, with the characteristic Abstract-Expressionist style of American artist Clifford Still.
James Joyce, Ulysses, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth: 1975, p. 704.