John Armstrong

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JOHN ARMSTRONG: Cold City Gallery, Toronto

The floor of the smaller gallery at Cold City was dense with undulating, slightly sinister looking roses, eerie at twice life-size and seeming as if a force field was just restraining them from crawling out of the room. With their wooden stems and wax leaves, these roses seemed like matrices for the fewer, more finished-looking roses that were strewn sparingly on the floor of the larger gallery — stems, sepals, leaves and thorns cast in bronze. In one room, the straw; in the next, Rumplestiltskin's gold. The rose as 'object matter' has occupied John Armstrong since 1979, but until now only in painting. This show represents his first real foray into sculpture. (Although a lone oval painting of roses, in a pattern that could have been based on wallpaper, hung over the gallery desk as a kind of signpost toward or reminder of his usual practice.) In contemporary terms, a switch in art forms or media can count for little and apart from the fact that this body of work does not deal with issues inherent in painting, I think this is largely the case here. After all, in the words of Gertrude Stein, 'rose is a rose is a rose.'

The gallery press release accompanying the exhibition makes note of the four colours of porcelain rose petals used for the flowers themselves: red, pale green, yellow and black, related to the four humours of ancient Western tradition. These four words — blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy — are sign-painted on one gallery wall, each in the appropriate colour. While many viewers would be unlikely to make the links between the colours, words and the meanings of the four humours without first being briefed, most would enjoy the careful conception of this exhibition — typified by small touches, such as the one vertical rose in a wall sconce near the entrance. Also pleasing are the artist's light-hearted gavotte with Beauty and, of course, with all the popular and historical connotations of the poor clichéd rose. Armstrong's sculptural roses are agreeable objects (at a time when disagreeable ones are so much more fashionable). Though they run wickedly and deliciously close to being tacky, this only complicates their visual, intellectual and emotional appeal.

A modest, but solid and steady presence as an artist in Toronto for some years now, Armstrong has painted flowers without being a flower painter, worked with the oval format without being a portraitist and now has created three-dimensional work that doesn't force itself on us as sculpture. I'm not calling him deliberately slippery; his work is too sincere and affirming of art for that, but nothing clings to him, making him (gosh!) just a bit like Nat King Cole's 'ramblin' rose'.

C Magazine, May-August 1998