John Armstrong

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JIM DANDY: Laying it on thick

In John Lennon's first and last role as lead actor in a (non-Beatles) movie, How I Won The War, he plays an enlisted man who at one point has a confrontation with his sergeant. "Sir, yerra bastard" he states in his patented Liverpool-ese.

If students still called their professors "sir," I could see a student of John Armstrong's saying the same thing to the Sheridan College professor. Not that he isn't a nice guy or a good teacher, it's that he's slippery -- just when you think you know where he's going, he'll confound your expectations. And enjoy doing it.

Armstrong is especially frivolous about certain insecurities that plague the art world. If you really want to hurt an artist, call him "decorative" or "baroque," or say she's "romantic" or "illustrative." These insulting epithets play on artists' deep fears that, in spite of years of studying critical theory, their work remains bone-stupid, piss-elegant, apolitical and fetishistic.

All the paintings in Armstrong's current Cold City exhibition Jim Dandy laugh at these worries with a headlong embrace of styles, techniques and quotations that are often proscribed by contemporary art.

Immediately as you enter the gallery, the piece called William faces you. At first glance it looks like a photograph, and indeed a large part of it is the giant cibacrome that makes up the background. It's a reproduction of a piece of William Morris fabric, but some yellow stuff, which turns out to be oil paint, interrupts the otherwise smooth contour of its oval shape. In fact, some thick yellow roses have been painted onto the pristine cibachrome print (and some have then been painted out again with deep blue).

In this gesture: painting onto a picture of another medium, weaving, there's an interesting combination of confusion and collusion. Confusion in the disruption of the reading flow you get with a single medium, whether it's painting or photography: the photograph's "window-pane" versus the immediacy of oil paint's facture. But there's an imagistic collusion also, between roses made by the hand of the painter and the ones made on the loom of the master weaver.

Though this connection may seem more theoretical than real, the proliferation of computer-painting, with its pixillated resolutions, returns the handmade image to pre-Renaissance sources such as tapestries, the early carriers of pictorial narrative. (William Morris himself was a member of the 19th-century pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of artists and poets who espoused pre-industrial handicraft production.)

The painting du Maurier follows a similar strategy, though this time the paint has been applied to a sheaf of commercial cigarette posters that have been stitched together. In fact, they've almost been obliterated (with careful observation, you can see the Benday-dots of the printing just visible at the edges of the paint). The painting comes in two panels: the inner, featuring red roses on a mauve ground, on an oval, linen stretcher; the outer featuring the posters -- the paper buckling and rippling as it frames the inner canvas.

A replacement effect occurs here. As the commercial print is smothered and hidden by the sensuous oil flow, the painted roses on the inside panel take on the look of a logo -- a repeating sign rather than a group of individual flowers. The painting begs the question: "How long can you go on hand-painting roses?" Answer: ad infinitum, because even the living rose performs a double duty, as a flower and as an infinitely repeatable sign for itself.

Up to now, the viewer has identified Armstrong as an enthusiastic thick painter, to the point of putting it on with a palette knife -- a favorite artists' tool of the '50s, seldom seen since, which Armstrong has re-established with irreverent zeal. A very recent work called My Spark, however, has very little paint on it at all. It's a thickly built up cardboard ovoid stencilled with phrases that may or may not be product names: "Happy," "Champ," "Young Glenn" and more too numerous to mention. "My spark" is the phrase used by Fanny Hill in John Cleland's novel of the same name to refer to her johns.

Is a painting a reading matter? Yes it is, whether the "paste" on it is as thick as mud, or as thin as a chalk-line. Armstrong lampoons the foolishness of anyone who doesn't realize it.

To 6 April 1996. Cold City Gallery, 686 Richmond Streer West, Toronto