|PROFILE: JOHN ARMLEDER - ONE BRAIN CAN HIDE A DOT|
Christophe Cherix on the background to this
issue’s artist collaboration
In 1987 Dieter Schwartz wrote an essay titled ‘One dot can hide another’, which demonstrated the manner in which John Armleder had then been using this motif for some years. ‘In general [his] dots were equidistant from each other, arranged symmetrically either in parallel columns or in staggered rows.’ While the dot has appeared in Armleder’s paintings since the beginning of the 1980s, associated either with para-suprematist motifs or in compositions of shapes of varying dimensions, it was in 1984 that the first large-formats emerged, in which the dot – or the ‘spot’ as the artist calls it – is used systematically, in series. As Schwartz notes, ‘Armleder’s dot paintings are statements and not primarily pictorial compositions. In contrast to the mute absolutism of isolated circles, the dots have a discursive character because they are not presented one by one but collectively, as a ‘syntagme.’ They can be both an abstract composition and a figurative work, belonging to neither of these categories: their role is provisional, one of perfect substitution.’
Indeed, it should be noted that since this
moment Armleder has chosen to vary his choice of motif whilst keeping a
uniform layout in terms of a repetition of the same shape over the canvas.
If his spot and colour drip paintings have become emblematic of the artist’s
work on the Anglo-Saxon appropriationist scene (given the apparent and
sudden availability of these motifs inherited from the avant-garde
modernists), Armleder endeavoured early on not to be imprisoned by one
particular mode of painting. As was the case with the dots in the seventies,
the new motifs of ‘smiley faces’ and ‘splashes’ have appeared as an
alternative in the artist’s work since the mid-eighties, particularly in his
works on paper. If the smiley faces and the splashes have their origins in
the sixties, their real popularity – in the form of stickers or badges in
the case of the former – came in the early seventies. Their appropriation by
the artist in the eighties cannot therefore be seen as an exploitation of
their fashionable status, but rather – one would like to suppose – a desire
to cover one’s tracks, to disrupt the gradually increasing body of criticism
relating to dot paintings.
Nevertheless, Armleder did not stop at the use of these two motifs. The beginning of the nineties saw the appearance of the plastic ‘vomits’, 1995 the stickers simulating cracked window panes, 2000 artificial cauliflowers stuck on the canvas, and 2002 the skulls and the brains: as many variations on the same theme making the arrangement of signs the subject of the work, which nothing, not even the most fantastical of apparitions, seems able to disturb.
For the 25th International Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, Armleder will make wallpaper featuring 17.5-centimetre-high stylised brains arranged in staggered rows. This wallpaper will cover the walls of the central room of the right wing of the Museum of Modern Art: a total surface area of nearly 280 square metres. Silver or gold (the choice has yet to be made) against a pastel background, the colour depending on the wall, the brains will function superficially as decorative motifs, so that only a particularly attentive viewer will be able to distinguish the usual fleurs de lys and other arabesques. One is reminded of the dot motifs arranged in a similar fashion in the mid-eighties.
There are two surprising elements to the shortcut proposed by this article: the permutation of the dot and the brain, and of the canvas and wallpaper. It would no doubt have been impossible for the artist to have appropriated with such ease the motif of the brain in the eighties, in the same way that it would have been hazardous to assert the decorative status of art by the direct use of wallpaper. One should remember that it was by means of his painted murals, made by the artist since the late sixties, and the Furniture Sculptures, begun in 1979 and which mix functional elements (furniture, musical instruments, lamps, antennae) and abstract painting, that this issue became a turning point in Armleder’s oeuvre.
Since the mid-eighties the series of mutations, as many forms as positions, which makes up Armleder’s work seems to partake of the general availability of forms and movements from history. An upheaval which Armleder has been aware of since 1996: ‘The disappearance of all backing-up principles previously essential to any relevant discourse throws down all preconceived cultural rules. The fact that when one quotes, it is finally superfluous to be aware that it’s in fact a quotation and by whom, from which context, from which frame of mind it was issued and for what purpose it came to be used then, shows a scheme liberated from all constrained moral codes inescapable until now." Should one worry, as did Schwarz – who, with regard to the dot paintings, noted the combined influences of Alexander Rodchenko, Henry Berlewi, Francis Picabia, and Larry Poons – that the brains invariably refer to Robert Morris and certain others in his lineage? Probably not, and it is perhaps in such an observation that the true freedom of our epoque resides.
Christophe Cherix is the Curator of the 25th International Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana (10 June – 28 September 2003)