John Armstrong


On a daily basis, many participate in two very human activities: painting and smoking — sometimes even simultaneously. Perhaps you’re a casual smoker or Sunday painter or did one or the other in the past. Even if you refrain from doing (or admitting to) either there is no mistaking that both are compelling practices. Their respective histories are long and complex: their associations with glamour, beauty and money make them at once desirable and risky. Strong feelings on both are evidenced by the life-or-death rhetoric, perpetrated in voluminous proponents amounts of literature that is churned out by opponents and proponents alike. Yet despite strident warnings — "Smoking can kill you" and "Painting is dead" — each lives on, indeed, flourishing in its supposed demise.

Play along with the following experiment:

There was a time, the 1905s for instance, when smoking was pervasive, acceptable and unabashedly cool. A good smoker was something to behold. In the 1980s, the "just–say-no" decade, campaigns were waged against smoking; people wised up and quit. But the situation has relaxed in the1900s. Many now choose to smoke and do so with calculated self –consciousness, informed by the facts. Smoking is indeed cool again and good smoker is still worth watching.

Now substitute the word "painting" for "smoking."

Of course, I am being provocative in pursing this parallel — few painters perish from their attachment to the medium (although there are some tragic tales). The death, mourning and rebirth of painting have been largely theoretical, but smokers gamble with certain tangible hazards. The connection I make between the two, it turns out, is somewhat forced.


Concluding that the pros outweigh the cons, millions take up or continue smoking. Are they swayed by seductive advertising campaigns — images of ecstatic couples throwing snowballs, dancing, entertaining? Neither the famous camel with its purported phallic connotations nor the fashionable women who have "come a long way, baby," arouse my desire to smoke. The best, most enduring campaign was the Marlboro Man, but his passing (lung cancer) took  the gusto out  of that. At one time however, we didn’t know that smoking was nasty for us. Ads focussed on smiling, waiting lips, hands holding cigarettes and of course band names and logos. They presented the cigarette as an accessory to the flirtation (or post-coital lull); as an excuse to  take a breather: and as means for satisfying one’s oral fixation or need to occupy idle hands. Naïvely, we could simply enjoy.


Painting has been and probably always will be an effective way to communicate meaning through images. But a good contemporary painting does not merely describe things seen. Nor does it exist solely for its own sake as Greenbergian Modernism proposed. Its language is neither definitive nor fixed to a specific reading; its signifiers float rather than point, creating hesitant, constantly changing associations. Painting now requires viewers to engage many criteria used in considering conceptual art. In these ways, painting has become relevant again.

Paintings are at once subjective and objective: brushstrokes may form the image of a man lighting a woman’s cigarette, yet also remain thick licks of paint — applied, as thousands of artists have done, by brush or palette knife. For a viewer, these histories can bear down heavily or flash through the mind as quick as a wink, but they are always present.

It is the leap or shift — from depictions on the surface of a canvas (whether a realistically rendered still life, or a geometric abstraction) to ideas — that is the substance and value of that painting. The gap traversed, whether vast or slight, is bridged by meanings brought to the work by the viewer.

These thoughts on smoking and painting are neither complicated nor unprecedented. Addressing content and medium equally if briefly, they are preliminary to a discussion of John Armstrong’s "Smokin'" paintings.


Encountering the works in Smokin', especially "in the flesh," immediately prompts the key questions that one asks when viewing a painting: Why was it painted? And why was it painted in this particular way? These are simple questions, but because we are compelled to ask them, we continue to look. Successful paintings point to answers but go on to trigger tougher questions.

In KEN, bev (1989) Ken and Bev enjoy a puff in an idyllic autumnal setting, a waterfall in the distance. The panorama, however, is interrupted by an effervescent pink rectangle. With its motif of rising bubbles, it suggests a panel of patterned textile (not to mention jubilance). Such spatial conundrums occur in every work, drawing attention to the possibilities and limitations of both illusionistic and flat space. They create a framework for also considering ambiguous relationships between painting styles and histories – from sign painting and illustration to fine art traditions, both recent and venerable. For example, the Soutine-esque dead fish in untitled (codfish) (1990) cites the unfashionable Dutch seventeenth-century (read decorative) still-life tradition, while KEN, bev recalls holiday images by Edouard Manet or Claude Monet. Furthermore, each scene is set in a bedroom, a bar, or out of doors — the Impressionists' preferred locales.

As well as juggling painting styles and spatial arrangements, individual works contain diverse content. Although smoking imagery is a constant, it is most strikingly contrasted (aside from the aforementioned fish) by slightly menacing images of rubber gloves in Supreme (1989) and Ene Co (1989), which bring to mind illustrated advertisements from 1950s Redbook magazines.

In these paintings, narrative and character are conveyed by hands — whose gestures couldn’t tell more opposing stories. Alongside the mundane reality of hands washing up, the frivolity and glamour of smoking becomes heightened to an almost ridiculous degree. (As an advertising strategy this could really work: smoking looks tempting when the alternative is washing dishes.) In  New Philip (1989), Armstrong borrows the chunky painting style of historical Canadian artist Paul – Emile Borduas, whose recognisable “hand” suggests the man. The handwritten signature, "Philip M.," stands in for cigarette mogul Philip Morris, also implying human presence without actual images of people. Again, dichotomies are established — between advertising and fine art and between smoking and painting.

Ambiguously, logos and brand names float across the canvases, randomly designating the people pictured with first names and characteristics — like "gentle" and "supreme." Or is the cigarette marketed as "supreme?" Or is the painting itself "supreme?" Does "Ken" denote the man in the forest or, since it is rendered in the appropriate corporate typeface, is it a fragment of "Kent," a brand of smokes?   

This slippage leads to bigger questions. Are these paintings about the allure of smoking? I don’t believe so. Do they convey the allure of painting? Absolutely, but with a nod to painting’s complicated place in contemporary culture. Similarly, while neither advocating nor advertising smoking. Armstrong capitalizes on smoking’s sexier qualities yet doesn’t forget its compromised position in today’s society.

Forced associations between seemingly contradictory or disparate elements — spaces, content, historical references — make the paintings in "Smokin'" both stimulating and revealing. And they spark further connections — such as the ones drawn here. A surprising result of such couplings is the revelation of a level at which smoking and painting have much in common.

Pamela Meredith

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