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.


Globe & Mail (Toronto), 15 May 1999

Toronto — 'From today, painting is dead." That was back in 1874, said to be the words of a prominent French painter reacting to the advent of photography. And then Monet and his pals went on to paint some of the most famous pictures ever. No, painting's real death blow only came in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp proclaimed an upside-down urinal as the new cerebral art, tossing the pitifully "retinal" handicraft of painting into the dustbin of history. Shortly thereafter, Picasso and Matisse brushed up some of their greatest canvases.

By 1921, however, Russian radical Alexander Rodchenko had painted three minimal monochromes — in red, yellow and blue — taking the art form to its "logical conclusions" and then affirming, "It's all over." Which is about the same time that Surrealist painters such as Miro and Magritte began to hit their stride.
But in the late sixties and seventies, painting really was on its last legs, as conceptual artists once and for all led the art world out of the corner abstraction had painted it into. Which, of course, as good as guaranteed that the neo-Expressionist painters of the early eighties would flourish. As they did, for a little while, until the art world outed them for the macho-man neo-cons they were, and decided to pull the plug on painting one last time.

And now, about 15 years later — surprise, surprise — painting is coming back to life again.

Of course, painting's struggles may not have caught the attention of the general public. Most people still think "painting" when they hear "art," and painting is still the only art form that sells in bulk. But more dedicated art lovers can't have failed to notice how painting has tended to drop from sight the further you get from the mainstream.

Christina Ritchie, a contemporary curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, remembers how she and many of her colleagues scorned much of the painting they saw right through the late seventies, eighties and early nineties. That, she says, has changed over the past few years. Three painters have turned up recently on the roster of Present Tense, the AGO's series of mini-exhibitions of current art. And last summer, Montreal dealer Rene Blouin, famous for his forward-looking tastes, helped organize a giant painting extravaganza that spanned the city, and is planning his own painting-filled salon show for this July. Even Parachute magazine, Canada's highest bastion of serious art thought, boosted painting's cred last year with a whole issue devoted to the ancient medium. Curators and critics, said Ritchie, "are simply a little more open-minded than we used to be."

But what made all those educated minds and eyes snap shut on painting in the first place?

Part of the problem was that, in an era when the avant-garde had set about addressing serious issues and weighty content, painting could sometimes look like a superficial, decorative, craft-obsessed rear guard — the epitome of art-for-art's-sake fiddling about.

Then there was the fact that painting had to compete with such up-and-coming forms as video, performance and installation art. "Painting does have this link to what is dusty and ossified," said John Armstrong, a Toronto painter, teacher and art writer who's witnessed the ups and downs his discipline has gone through over the past quarter-century. (He left the art program at York University in 1976 after his teachers kept asking why he bothered messing around with paint.)

Armstrong himself has tried to marry classical technique and contemporary experimentation; his exquisitely old-fashioned oil paintings of roses, for instance, are often done on evidently modern surfaces such as plastic and cardboard. But not all attempts to give new life to old paint have been entirely convincing. A rich history is bound to produce more derivative dreck than bright new gems.

And all that tradition can be daunting. Diana Nemiroff, curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, remembers the warnings of her art-school teacher, Quebec abstractionist Guido Molinari, when she set about making representational paintings. "I was going to have to contend with the entire history of painting," she says he reminded her. High-profile sculptor Damian Hirst — the young British artist who bottles cut-up cows — has said that he always really wanted to be a painter, "but I was overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities."

Maybe the most important reason for rejecting painting came from the simple fact that, for many years, it was the arrogant Goliath that needed to be brought low. "A lot of the critique of painting included in it a critique of the institutions of high art," said Ritchie. Armstrong agrees: "Painting has been historically freighted as part of the Dead White Male establishment." In a field such as fine art, where it's a sacred duty to question sacred cows, that made painting ripe for the slaughter.

If painting is coming back from the dead, it may be because it doesn't pose the threat it used to. In 1997, the giant international art roundups in Kassel and Venice showed only a handful of contemporary painters. But that apparent neglect may have been a healthy sign of a rethinking of painting's place in the scheme of things. Now painting is just one of a dozen or more art forms that can lay claim to a curator's attention — though finding themselves stuck with a small fraction of the exhibition space they used to dominate can make paint lovers see vermilion.

In fact, the giant-killing may have helped bring painting down to manageable size. Artists can at last think about trying on a palette without feeling like shills for an oppressive establishment. Now that painting doesn't loom above, some of the qualities that used to be part of its stigma make it worth a second look.

Take beauty (or Beauty), for ages a dirty word in the art world but now coming back into play. All over, artists and critics are asking themselves if it's possible to work at making good-looking art and still end up with an object that has teeth, and brains. Whatever the results of these experiments — the verdict is still out — they've given painting, the classic home of the beautiful, a new lease on life.

And the popularity, and sellability, of painting aren't the curse they used to be. For years, painting was tarred with the brushes of empty-headed populism and capitalist commodification. But such complaints have less leverage than they once did, now that capitalism reigns almost unquestioned and popular appeal can seem the ultimate measure of value. Besides, artists are frankly tired of being poor and isolated.

Of course, while artists, critics and curators have been busy questioning the fundamental worth of painting, it has remained the contemporary art market's bread and butter. Andy Sylvester, director of the eminently successful Equinox Gallery in Vancouver, said that over the 19 years he's been in the art business the so-called death of painting has had very little effect. "In the hierarchy of the art market, painting has a unique status, and I haven't seen that changing very much."

Only the public galleries have had the money and space to buy and show elaborate installations, Sylvester explained. Most of the art-buying public wants to fill empty wall space, and painting, as a medium that speaks directly to many people, often fits the bill.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Armstrong acknowleges that he became an artist to engage a public, and he doesn't exactly mind the fact that painting helps him get there. "I think there's a certain accessibility to painting that the other media just don't have."

The question that no one can answer is whether all that accessibility, profitability, tradition and beauty will help launch painting into a new and glorious future of growth and change. It may just keep it rooted in its glorious past, like a lovely perennial that blooms year after year — but never looks very different than before.