John Armstrong

The Name and the Rose
The Performance of Portraiture in the Work of John Armstrong


Of the four humours, blood was thought to produce a hopeful, courageous and amorous temperament - along with a ruddy complexion. Titled "Sanguine," John Armstrong's selected five-year retrospective exhibition holds the crimson promise of such passion. The main gallery features a series of large oval paintings using a variety of techniques and supports, as well as an installation of delicate rose sculptures. In shape and scale, the paintings mimic a standard number 100 portrait format, as dictated by a convention of nineteenth-century French art, yet they do not contain a face, a bust or any other reference to the human figure. Within their frames we find some recurring motifs and some anomalies, including several bouquets' worth of thickly painted roses, a litany of men's names and a scatological little phrase. Yet, the invitation to read these works as portraits is undeniable. If the frame functions as a stage for the meaningful gestures and relations that constitute a work of art, then John Armstrong's performance is portraiture.
Referring to the established symbolic content of Armstrong's non-human subjects won't necessarily draw us any closer to the works' meaning. For example, attempting to read his roses as a metaphor for love leads to a conceptual dead-end and ultimately misses the point. In performing the role of the portrayed subject, Armstrong's rose becomes an agent for meaning and does not provide meaning in itself. The rose is subsumed into the construct of the portrait, and thus extricated from its own symbolic baggage.

Having taken pains to select visual and literary subjects that are banal and/or ubiquitous, Armstrong has then divorced them from their overdetermining contexts. However, it would be misleading to suggest that the effect of this gesture is neutrality or meaninglessness. By emptying out rather than reinvesting in the culturally determined content of his subjects, the artist neatly sidesteps our expectations. Evacuating his subjects' bloated significance doesn't leave the works voided; rather, it lends them a complexifying internal tension. In one painting, for example, he has lifted the simile "Busy as a fart in a mitt." (What might this phrase have described?) Repeating the simile numerous times in various typefaces, he renders the earnest pursuit of its meaning both quixotic and fruitless.

When looking at portraits the convention is to move quickly past the object itself. Rather than lingering on the material qualities of the works, we immediately mount the escalator to personal identification and the construction of meaning. However, the objects and words in Armstrong's portraits reveal little about themselves beyond their obvious visual and physical qualities, and thereby frustrate this psycho-biographical dynamic. Instead of encouraging us to take the high road to meaning, Armstrong opts for a lateral maneuvre: not loyal to any particular painting technique or even any particular support, he glides easily from canvas to cardboard to corrugated plastic - from buttery strokes of palette-knifed oil paint to sign-painted enamel to sand-carved mirror. With these multifarious maneuvres he calls attention to the materiality of the painting.

Figure Before a Mirror, for example, is a two-part piece: one panel is oil on linen, the other a mirror. The title suggests the contrapposto figure of a woman looking at her own reflection, but instead I see lush, pink, oil-painted roses adjacent to a cluster of silvered roses etched into the glass. The only (human) figure before the mirror is me. The overall piece is a back-and-forth play of texture and relief: roses gouging the smooth reflective surface on one side and stucco-like paint on the other. If there were less going on kinesthetically in the work, I'd focus more on the artist's conceptual motivations, but there is much to engage the eye.

The practices of emphasizing painting's materiality and of representing selected objects from popular culture are hardly new. So what makes Armstrong's approach worthy of note? At a time in the medium's history when artists are attempting to paint themselves out of the narrow corner of Greenbergian modernism by adopting various referential strategies (i.e. referencing advertising, graphic design, digital media and graffiti), Armstrong has chosen to look over his shoulder - to the conventions of portraiture, the still-life genre and the nineteenth-century romantic period. In doing so, he encourages us to consider the history of painting as part of the meaning of any individual work.

Armstrong's approach to portraiture also runs contrary to a tradition that, in his own words, insists that figure and ground "share a carefully elaborated, continuous circumstance of light and setting." He frequently reworks and builds up the ground after painting the figure, acknowledging both as distinct entities. Thus, he asks that we construct a reading of a particular work on the basis of all the information contained within its frame, instead of prioritizing figure over ground.

Some of Armstrong's references to history are more oblique than others. For instance, William uses a Cibachrome photograph as its support - the close-up image of a floral-patterned carpet, designed by William Morris. Onto the glossy, tapestried emulsion are painted several yellow roses in full bloom. (Armstrong shares with Morris an appreciation for beauty and an affinity with flora.) Morris's credo, "Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful," bears further reflection when considered in relation to Armstrong's work. Many of his paintings employ materials and techniques that have a functional history prior to their being called into the service of art: poster paper, sign-painting, bubble-wrap and cardboard. But even with such proletarian infiltrations, there is no mistaking Armstrong's paintings for anything but fine art, loaded as they are with art-historical markers and executed (for the most part) in the world's most recognized art medium.

My Spark features men's names and adjectives describing the "ideal concubine," sign-painted onto untreated cardboard in scripts that refer mostly to brand names, for example, the name "Victor," as in RCA Victor and the term "Easy" from Nice 'n' Easy hair colour. The words are haloed by the blue chalk used in sign-painting - hardly the slick, computer-generated logos endemic to our ad-saturated environment. The term "my spark" is a euphemism for a prostitute's "john" (the artist's first name) as it appears in John Cleland's eighteenth-century erotic novel Fanny Hill. By correlating johns' names with the names of goods, Armstrong playfully inverts the notion of "service" as transacted in the world's oldest profession. In representing the brands somewhat casually ("with their pants down" so to speak), My Spark also teases out a nostalgia for the ideals of usefulness. However, now - over a hundred years after Morris's (and Cleland's) time - Armstrong isn't content to simply reify that nostalgia; he marries it to contemporary economics, recognizing that we live in an era where the discourse of use has been replaced by that of "new and improved" and the discourse of beauty has been replaced by that of identity and self-signification. Being merely useful seems charming but antiquated in the current context of multi-tasking.

Another work that plays off product recognition is du Maurier. To create the support for this work, sheets of poster paper from old du Maurier advertising billboards have been stacked, cut into Armstrong's trademark oval shape, and their surface smeared with layers of grey-green paint. Inset like a jewel into the centre of this large painting is a smaller oval panel of the oil-on-linen variety offering a cluster of rich, red roses. The roses are surrounded by the smoky swipes of pigment, their ardent freshness undiminished. In an artful pun, du Maurier unwittingly provides the (physical) support for the piece at a time when the company's (financial) support for the arts is being challenged in Canadian Courts because it permits the promotion of a product that would otherwise be illegal to advertise. Meanwhile, the title card for the painting provides an ironical mini-space for free advertising. This is not the first time Armstrong has addressed the allure of cigarettes in his work: his 1989-90 series called Smokin' presents sophisticated smokers in juxtaposition with cryptic images and image fragments.

Accompanying the paintings in "Sanguine" are dozens of larger-than-life-size rose sculptures. These excruciatingly frail works, made of porcelain and bronze, are collectively titled The Ideal Person or an Equal Mixture of the Four: Blood, Phlegm, Bile and Black Bile. They refer directly to the roses in many of the paintings - in fact, Armstrong regards them as extensions of his painting. The sculpted roses are perfectly consistent with the two-dimensional ones in terms of modeling, colouration and, obviously, the implications of subject (a rose is a rose . . .).

The brittle sculptures are assembled from separate parts, both cast and hand-built. The lost-wax (or cire-perdue) process Armstrong uses to fabricate the stems, leaves and calyxes is an ancient one: leaf and calyx forms made of wax and slightly altered maple and dogwood saplings are individually encased in moulds of plaster, sand and luto (recycled mould material), which are then fired; bronze is poured into the resulting casts and after being separated from the mould matrix, the pieces are welded together. This technique results in a number of bubbles and irregularities (as well as some white residue from the luto), which the artist lets be. However, he does grind and polish the rough, bronze joints, which results in patches of shimmery gold against the crude brown surfaces. The blossoms are hand-built porcelain held in place with wax, and have been glazed in green, yellow, red and black to correspond with the four cardinal humours named in the work's title.

These exquisite sculptures have been installed on the floor, mounted on the wall and - in "Sanguine" - suspended in mid air. In each configuration, they animate the space of the gallery, not as a stage-set but as the performers themselves. The gallery becomes a frame, a theatre that permits a meandering, associative relationship between form and content. And, like their painted companions, these works embrace aspects of portraiture. The title, The Ideal Person . . ., hints that we are looking at a composite portrait, not of an individual but of an ideal. And the chromatic nod to the four humours, fluids that were once believed to determine a person's physical and mental qualities, extends the artist's rosy anthropomorphism.

Far from the stiff, cerebral exercises that some nineteenth-century academic paintings now resemble, John Armstrong's performative "portraits" animate their subjects through theatrical gestures and relations - as well as painterly forms and surfaces. The works emerge from a contemporary predicament but their weight and substance come from a committed dialogue with history. However, for all this cerebral stuff, the only thing these sanguineous performers have been able to convince me of with any certainty is that John Armstrong is hopelessly in love with painting.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark is a writer, editor, curator and theatre collaborator based in Toronto. She writes regularly for numerous publications including C International Contemporary Art, Artforum, Poliester (Mexico) and Art Asia Pacific (Sydney). Her most recent exhibition, B*O*O*K (be double okay), was presented at the Walter Philips Gallery, Banff, in the fall of 1998.