John Armstrong

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Porcelain roses bloom in fertile exhibition: visual arts. There is much to explore in John Armstrong's garden of sculpted, vivacious flowers (A picture of perfect health).


Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), March 17, 1998

Toronto — ROSES R Us. We give them to one another when we're born, when we marry, when we die. We give them to our dates as emblems of desire. We give them to our mothers as symbols of gratitude. We give them to our children when they graduate. We send them by wire. We prick ourselves on their thorns and curse their hidden treacheries.

All this roseate meaning tumbles back to you in an exhibition by artist John Armstrong now at Toronto's Cold City Gallery. Titled A Picture of Perfect Health, Armstrong's vivacious show is made up of roomfuls of highly artificial long-stemmed roses scattered about on the gallery's floor. All of the roses are slightly larger than life. Each of them has been painstakingly crafted, some featuring carved wood stems with cast wax leaves, and some featuring stems and leaves cast in bronze.

These amusing and disturbing cuttings have big, blowzy blooms laboriously fabricated, one petal at a time, from glazed porcelain. The porcelain posies come in four colours: a silky, creamy yellow, a rather gamy and glandular red, a satisfyingly decadent grey-black, and an eerie pale green, like some flower harvested from an airless garden on the moon.

Armstrong, hitherto a painter (and often a painter of wry, ironically rendered, pseudo-innocent flowers), is here making his debut as a sculptor. Freed from the confines of canvas, his new sculpted roses lie about on the floor like spiky, floral land mines, their bronze leaves and hard porcelain blossoms as potentially lacerating as they are lovely. The fact that the sharper bronze roses are scattered with an apparent offhandedness throughout the largest of the gallery's two rooms lends them a certain poignancy, as if they are resting where they have fallen, discarded unceremoniously after some unknown celebration.

BY contrast, the slightly smaller, wood-and-wax versions (still bearing porcelain flowers), are marshalled thickly onto the floor of the smaller of the gallery's two rooms, where they form a tangled mat or horizontal vine so dense you are effectively discouraged from entering their domain. It's as if there's an invisible velvet rope across the entryway. The bronze roses, then, are abandoned but dangerous. The wax-wood roses are individually less threatening, but organized and therefore daunting in aggregate.

The colours of Armstrong's porcelain blossoms, quite delightful in themselves, in their lush, giddy, Royal Doulton-like buttery smoothness, are, it turns out, keyed to the ancient paramedical classification system of the bodily humours. Armstrong's initially puzzling exhibition title, A Picture of Perfect Health, addresses the antique physiological assumption that any well-rounded individual is made up of four mysterious but essential bodily fluids or secretions, each held in perfect equipoise with the others. These four humours -- blood (red), phlegm (green), yellow bile (yellow) and black bile (black) -- made you happy, sluggish, angry and melancholy.

The trouble with the artist's dragooning of this humours business is that it tends to pull back on the buoyancy the roses possess in such abundance entirely on their own. There is already so much to explore in Armstrong's garden of earthly delights -- issues of craft versus art, explorations of kitsch and quality, musings about the nature and limits of sculpture -- that his big robust roses are quite vibrant enough as they are -- humourless though they may be.

 Until March 28 at Toronto's Cold City Gallery, 686 Richmond St. W.