John M. Armleder (Auckland: Artspace and Jensen Gallery, 2001). Documenting an exhibition at Artspace, Auckland, 1999.
So Goldie Hawn goes to Africa, and she’s found by this tribe of small people and they worship her.
Kind of like The Gods Must Be Crazy, except the Coke bottle is replaced by a TV actress?
Exactly, it’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.
Hollywood has perfected the ‘high-concept movie’. Studio films are necessarily reruns, remakes, and sequels, the same but different. Downplaying originality, they take a proven model and give it a twist, a facelift, or inventively cross-pollinate it with another success story to create a hybrid—a new fetching and competitive strain. Alien 3 is Aliens with a medieval spin—now celibate monks slay the dragon; Forbidden Planet meets The Abyss in Sphere; while Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho cunningly offers, as its unique twist, no twist at all. If Hollywood creates high-concept movies, perhaps John Armleder creates high-concept art. For the last thirty-odd years, the Swiss artist has avoided an original or signature style, preferring to quote, juxtapose, collage, and otherwise détourne references, manners, and operations derived from modern art, modern design, and modern life. Walking into Armleder’s Artspace installation you can easily imagine yourself to be in a group show, so many different and contrary ways of making art are in evidence.
While filmmakers pitch their ideas as high concepts in order to get their projects financed, Armleder makes high-concept art by preference. His work presumes a literate reader; a seasoned, disinterested, even slightly jaded insider—someone who’s seen it all before. Like the artist, this reader can take pleasure in seeing familiar moves ‘rewound’ and ‘fast forwarded’, ‘at any speed’. Armleder uses generic elements so the plays are clear. For a big wall painting at Artspace, Armleder appropriated a ‘splash’ motif from a popular European decal, suggesting both a little ‘accident’ and graphic shorthand for painterly mark. In art, especially since Pollock, the painterly mark has come to stand less for the accidental and meaningless, than for the vital and expressive, the authentic and necessary—the autograph. Armleder repeats the irregular motif regularly in a grid pattern and in a decorous colour combination: green on yellow (or, as the paint chart would have it, ‘Lovers Lane’ on ‘Full Moon’). The unique, heroic existentialist mark is thus turned into a trademark, domesticated as decor. Playing off action painting, minimalist grids, and pop’s wallpaper aesthetic, the mural might sit alongside Rauschenberg’s Factum paintings, Lichtenstein’s comic brushstrokes, and Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings—all disarming pop treatments of abstract-expressionist mark making. Except there is no heavy iconoclasm here. For, unlike his pop predecessors, Armleder is not knocking down something that is still putting up a fight. And, his mural follows and recuperates those pop artists too, alongside Pollock.
Armleder is tender to art strategies that have done their dash, that history and its institutions have softened up, predigested, and made available for a new kind of appreciation. But, while he gives old heroes a second spin, he remains consistently and deeply anti-heroic. If he puts established gestures back into play, he also holds them in check. As if to belie the idea of modernist succession, moves neutralise one another—no one wins. Pointedly, at Artspace, next to the splash mural hang a pair of Pour paintings. While both fuse pop and AbEx, the mural looks predominantly pop while the Pours look predominantly AbEx. It’s as if both options are equally valid and timely.
The Pours are made using special-purpose and gimmick paints, substances not designed to go together—metallics, flouros, hammer finishes, resins, aluminium powder, glitter. These are poured down the canvas systematically, with little consideration for the result. The end product is determined largely by chance, through the unpredictable hostility of the chemistry. The Pours recall Pollock, with his dripping and his penchant for metallic paints, while playing off his claim to masterly control of the apparently chaotic mark. But they have other reference points: Morris Louis (Armleder also uses unprimed canvas), Sigmar Polke, and late Larry Poons. (Armleder is keen to champion the deeply now unfashionable Poons, one of art-history’s casualties, whose dribbly paintings followed his fifteen minutes of fame.) So, just as the Pours are overloaded with paint, they are overrun with references—a consistent feature of Armleder’s work.
Armleder prefers devices that have already been round the block: the readymade, the fluoro rube, the stripe, the dot, the circle … all common coins of modern art. There’s often a play between exhaustion and vitality. At Artspace, Armleder decorated the walls of one room with gaudy concentric circles, then hung four square canvases with irregularly centred concentric circles down one side. The imagery recalls bulging cartoon eyes, amusement-arcade decor, and maths-class spirograph art, as much as Duchamp’s Precision Optics and Rotoreliefs and Jasper Johns’s and Kenneth Noland’s Targets. The artist describes it as ‘a shooting gallery’. On the floor, in the midst of the optical buzz, lies a deranged heap of fluorescent lights—a ‘collapsed Flavin’. Flavin’s Monuments from the late 1960s reworked Tatlin’s infamous 1920 Monument for the Third Communist International, a triumphal, phallic, revolutionary-period, tower. If Flavin took Tatlin’s utopian model and realised it as a flat logo in standard-length fluorescent tubes, Armleder deinstalls a Flavin and deranges it on the floor. So, in the midst of considerable optical ecstasy, we find a wilted, disorganised, entropic, detumescent—albeit glowing—tower.
It’s often noted that Armleder does not have a signature style, but his work is not ‘anything goes’ either. He improvises on the basis of a repertoire of recipes—he’s been doing Pours for years. If the work is formulaic, it’s formulas that make the improvisation possible. Much of the pleasure of the work is how effortlessly a particular look can be mocked up. Armleder is a stylist whose treatments downplay craft, emphasising the effortlessness placement of this with that—‘just so’. Take the two scrap-metal installations at Artspace. Armleder arranged a trailerload of junk in a trice, but, once framed as art, one could discuss their sculptural precedents for hours. Similarly two relief ‘paintings’—apparent hybrids of Mondrian, Nicolson, and Fontana—were made by simply relocating tiles from the ceiling onto the wall.
Armleder’s witty works play on aspects of art’s language and history, turning on distinctions and oppositions. The action is not only within works but also between them. For instance, at Artspace, Armleder’s mirror-ball installation speaks to what is glittery and gimmicky in the Pours and to what is luminescent in the ‘collapsed Flavin’. The mirrorballs’ regular placement echoes the arrayed splashes while its dazzling field of cast sparkles playing on the walls, floor, and ceiling make one as queasy as the shooting gallery. The whole Artspace show can be read as one big work, a play of affinity and difference. There is a sense that Armleder is mapping out a typology of modern-art strategies, and playing this field, with moves met by counter moves, strategies reshuffled and dealt again. As much as Armleder revels in the space between art and life, the work is not at all anti-art—it’s all grist to the art mill. Armleder renovates the institution of art.
Armleder’s approach can be traced back to his youth. When he cut his teeth in the 1970s, the contemporary art world was defined by philosophical extremism. It was a time of isms, doctrines, manifestos. Artists thrived or dived by turns in arguments as to what might be ‘advanced’. The guiding light of modernist teleology was about to give way to postmodern pluralism. Early on, Armleder was a member of the Fluxus-inspired Geneva group Ecart. Ecart stood in opposition to the earnestness and absolutism that ruled the day. It did not rest on a distinct theory, aesthetic, or politic. It was enough for the members to take tea together, organise a hike, compete as a rowing team, or celebrate occasions on their personal calendars in order to affirm their collective identity and open up the possibility of group artistic expression. When Armleder began making abstract paintings in the 1980s, it seemed to be an about face. Those paintings looked like the earnest, pedigreed, formalist work that Ecart opposed as conservative, but, for Armleder, the work was an extension of Ecart’s Fluxus openness. Armleder has said: ‘Many of those Ecart artists … would reject a traditional painting as bourgeois art but I found this reaction in itself to be extremely bourgeois.’2
While Armleder fondly draws on the language of the historical avantgarde, he doesn’t invest in its heroic revolutionary rhetoric. Nor is he bourgeois. He may wear a suit and tie, the uniform of the bourgeoisie, but he will complain of bourgeois attitudes. Armleder occupies a third position, he’s a dandy. The dandy emerged in the nineteenth century as a self-appointed aristocrat, who elevated matters of dress and deportment to the status of moral imperatives. The dandy was not necessarily flashy. In fact, Beau Brummell said a man was not well dressed unless he could walk down the street unnoticed. (And Armleder speaks of early wall paintings, where he would sneak into white-walled galleries and paint the walls white.) The dandy was not an explicit original, in fact his practice was about maximum attention to existing codes, exposing conventions, refining them, inflecting them; the placement of a handkerchief, the width of a lapel, the number of buttons.
Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘Notes on Camp’ has much to offer an understanding of the transformation of the dandy in the twentieth century, and, by extension, Armleder’s project: ‘Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture. The dandy was overbred … He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation … He was dedicated to good taste: the connoisseur of camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses. Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp—dandyism in the age of mass culture—makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object.’3
Exemplifying Oscar Wilde’s quip that a doorknob can be as beautiful as a painting, Armleder creates a space where elite and common coexist. Armleder’s is not an anxious, politically motivated levelling, as in, say, the work of his contemporary, Braco Dimitrijevic. Dimitrijevic’s Post-Historical Triptychs—which each juxtapose artwork, non-art man-made objects, and natural ones—lament the regime which elevates Cezanne’s painting of an apple over an apple, or a masterpiece over a common piece of furniture. But Dimitrijevic’s tableaux are implausible. Their charge depends on hierarchies. They illustrate and reinscribe the very hierarchies they bemoan: there’s always some art, some culture, some nature. However, in Armleder’s set-ups, one has the sense that a mirror ball, a trash movie, and a modern dot painting are already interchangeably parts of the same scenography, sensibility, or decor; they go together. Armleder makes Dimitrijevic look unnecessarily staunch, as though Dimitrijevic were agitating for a revolution that had already occurred.
Sontag: ‘Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards … Camp refines both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of ideating with extreme states of feeling … Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content”, “aesthetics” over “morality”, of irony over tragedy … The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to the serious. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious … One is drawn to Camp when one realises that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism …’4 Writing in 1964, Sontag, a modernist critic, was clearly ambivalent about camp, a sensibility she admitted being both fascinated and revolted by. Certainly camp threatens modernism’s earnestness, its penchant for extreme states of feeling.
In his 1983 article, ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?’, Thierry De Duve distinguishes historical-modernist avantgardists with their utopian aesthetic-and-political programme from campy postmodernist imitators.5 For De Duve, the historical avantgarde achieved a radical break with history by addressing their claim for legitimacy not to the academies of the day but to the future, to a history yet to be written, while today’s postmodemists look back to the history or institution of modern art for their legitimacy. Postmodernist abstraction might be seen as especially conservative in appealing to an art of the past which itself had no truck with the past. And yet, De Duve’s position itself is dogged with bad faith, as he sides with ‘the good old things’ rather than ‘the bad new ones’. In reading the camp future through the modernist past, De Duve’s ‘Who’s Afraid?’ is already a done deal. However, in reading the modernist past through the camp postmodern present, without claiming the avantgarde high ground, Armleder offers a contrary view. He evacuates modernism’s anxiety from a fearless, playful, postmodernist viewpoint. Armleder throws De Duve’s question ‘Who’s Afraid?’ right back at him. If Armleder suffers at all, it’s not from postmodern fear but from postmodern complacency.
- Dir. Robert Altman, 1992. Quote abridged.
- John Armleder interviewed by Helena Kontova and Giancarlo Politi, ‘John M. Armleder: A Gentleman in the Fluxus Tradition’, Flash Art, October 1992: 64.
- Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’, Against Interpretation (London: Vintage, 1994), 288–9.
- Ibid.: 286–8.
- Artforum, September 1983: 30–7.