John Armstrong

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Can you spot the lakeshore?


Saturday, December 16, 2006 - Page R16

John Armstrong and Paul Collins at Oakville Galleries

John Armstrong and Paul Collins have been friends since they were art students at York University in the mid-1970s. They discovered early in their careers that they enjoyed working together. And the fact that Collins has lived in Paris (and now in Caen) for the past 20 years has apparently been no impediment to their frequent collaborations.

Indeed, the distance has been a help. In 2002, for example, they produced a book-work (and a spinoff exhibition) titled Jim, which was predicated upon the distance between them. They compiled a list of 49 essentially banal words (words such as hammer, tree, radiator, and so on) and then photographed their own versions of the word, Armstrong working here, Collins in Paris. In the book (co-published by Coach House Books and the Art Gallery of Sudbury), the resulting 98 images are printed side by side and make for absorbing comparisons (for the word radiator, one artist has photographed the real thing while the other has merely photographed an advertisement for one).

For their more recent project, Lakeshore, which has been touring since 2003 and is now at Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens, Oakville, Armstrong and Collins both worked on the same image, rather than generating images in pairs. Lakeshore takes the form of a suite of large colour photographs (plus a couple of videos) on which have been painted images and, quite often, words in both English and French. Both artists have made the photographs and both have painted the images (in oil paint) imposed upon them. In the mysterious work shown here, for example, titled Lakeshore: Red Coat Cup, Collins has taken the romantic, pink-sky-pink-rails photograph -- on a train from Paris to Caen (where he teaches) -- while Armstrong has radically de-romanticized the image by painting the cup on it.

But where, you might ask -- gazing upon the tracks and the cup -- does the "Lakeshore" idea come in? Well, that's a bit subtle, perhaps overly so. Armstrong and Collins cheerfully admit in the brochure accompanying the exhibition that they "portray a lakeshore in our painted photographs in a figurative, personal and often rather oblique manner." And while some of the images do depict actual lakeshore moments (the Redpath sugar plant on Queens Quay in Toronto, for example, with a rather grubby, greyish tumbler painted next to it), most of the photo-paintings have more to do with what the two artists identify as their "routine comings and goings," with their representation of the shore as "a threshold, a place of contemplation, departure or arrival."

Armstrong's de-romanticizing of the railway photo, by imposing his paper cup on it, is in a sense the way the whole Lakeshore suite works: the photo and the painted imposition, rather than reinforcing one another, destabilize one another to the point that any chance of a restful, escapist reading by the viewer is wickedly and pointedly compromised. The painted material, sensuously oil-painted onto the slick surfaces of the photographs, serves as a distancing device. The superimposed images act not as captions, but rather as deflectors of meaning. And they therefore preclude the work having one meaning, offering, instead, what Armstrong and Collins call "a greater plurality of readings." Which lends these endlessly engaging works a whole lot of energy.

Until Jan. 14, 1306 Lakeshore Rd. E., Oakville, Ont.; 905-844-7968