John Armstrong

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Gallery going: Picturing the challenge of 49 words


Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), May 18, 2002

The way John Armstrong tells it, he and fellow artist Paul Collins were sitting in a cafe in Paris three years ago when they happened upon the idea that informs their current dual-exhibition. "We sat at the table, which, by the way, had a paper tablecloth, and jotted down a list of 49 words," Armstrong says, "and these were to become the 49 subjects of a series of photographs."

The majority of the words were relentlessly ordinary, banal: tree, hammer, keys, radiator. Some were odder, more complex, more particularized: words or phrases like art dealer, editorial cartoon, directional indicator, painted sky.

The idea, for Armstrong, who worked in Paris 20 years ago, before coming back to Toronto, and the once Toronto-based Collins, who moved to Paris 20 years ago and lives there still, was that they would each make a black-and-white photograph to reference each of their 49 words and mount them side by side. The point was that even though Armstrong and Collins were friends of longstanding (they met while studying at York University), they were bound to have varying interpretations of each word -- two degrees of separation. The resulting 98 images, are now in exhibition at Toronto's Robert Birch Gallery before moving on to the Art Gallery of Sudbury in July, and to venues in France and Germany next year.

Initially, the most intriguing aspect of this conceptual game of Armstrong's and Collins's is the attribution challenge. Which photograph is by which artist? Which, in other words, are taken in Paris and which in Toronto?

Even more intriguing is the way the photographs foreground the differences in the sensibilities of the two artists. Sometimes they are remarkably close in their interpretations: for "hammer," both, for example, have photographed a row of tools hanging against a wall. For "radiator," however, one has photographed an actual radiator (given the fact that there's a folded copy of The Globe and Mail on it, this must be Armstrong), while the other has merely photographed an advertisement for one. With the word "newscast," Armstrong has portrayed the portable plastic radio perched at the edge of his bathroom sink (I know this is his because he told me), while Collins has interpreted the word as a photo of a communications tower. And so it goes.

 All 98 photographs are handsomely reproduced -- along with puckishly charming dual texts -- by the artists (Armstrong's in English, Collins's in French) in a sumptuous little book co-published by Coach House Books and the Art Gallery of Sudbury. The book, like the exhibition it accompanies, is called Jim, with an arrow after the name, pointing severely to the right. The reference is to the graffiti scratched into gravestones in Paris's Pere-Lachaise cemetery, indicating the way to Jim Morrison's grave.