JOAN FERNEYHOUGH GALLERY

Cameron Armstrong

Press & Reviews

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Tom Red

Solvent

September 2005

 

Evocation and the Architecture of Light: The Work and Play of Visual Artist Cameron Armstrong

 

What are these slap-dash/calculated “evocation devices” I see before me?  These abstract blobs of black or white that wander across the page or board and get me all excited.  This artist, this Cam Armstrong makes conceptual, “juxtaposed,” imagiste paintings and drawings in his home town of North Bay, Ontario Canada: at the edge of the wilderness, edge of the ice, edge of the southern herd.  After making noises together last night, we sat down to talk about Cam ’s life, his art practice and the North Bay art experience.

 

As a child growing up in Graniteville, Cam remembers being inspired by comics long before he began to experiment with visual art media.  As a student in the eighties, he developed his interests in music ( Cam is a Conservatory trained pianist and keyboard player) and various forms of visual art, David Carlin, art teacher at Widdifield High School , introduced Cam to the joys of mixed media and to an appreciation for the synthesis of art and politics.  During this period, Armstrong began to perform his music at local clubs and taverns.  The Lion’s Heart Tavern holds a special place in the hearts of the North Bay Gen-X crowd.  The eighties were the years when the North Bay scene was vibrant, inspiring and cohesive and the Lion’s Heart was at the eye of the storm.  Local music was thriving as well.  Armstrong credits the Parkview Tavern as a formative cultural venue that fed his appetites for R&B, traditional blues acts, and indie acts from across the country.

 

In l988 Cam moved to Toronto to attend the Ontario College of Art and to live the life of the artist.  He learned from his instructors (John Scott, Robert Hedrick, and Victor Tinkle as well as Graham Coughtry and Jim Tiley) and from his fellow students (Ian-Patrick McAllister, Sheri Boyle, and Stephanie Cormier among many others).  John Scott, infamous for his Trans-Am Apocalypse No. 2, was a “great teacher” who had “a soft way of getting to devastating points” about Cam ’s work.  Scott’s critiques and his own art projects were always conceptually driven, i.e. the idea for the piece was central, and often dictated the medium while being heedless of the market.

 

All cranked up with these new ideas and techniques, Cam collaborated with fellow OCA students and other young Toronto artists to form loose artists’ collectives.  Groups like The Impure Collective and Dead Industry were formed to “find solutions” for a lack of venues for contemporary artworks in Toronto during the early to mid-nineties.  Cam was a member of both these collectives and took part in dozens of warehouse shows, site-specific projects, performances and “multiples” initiatives.

 

It’s also important to note that Cam cites his more “traditionalist” teachers as being equally formative to his art and practice.  Jim Tiley brings to his students a strong attention to form in painting.  Graham Coughtry was able to make the history of Canadian contemporary art real for his students and to illustrate how abstraction in various parts of the country was drawing from similar traditions and reflecting similar concerns.  Cam recalls that, “Robert Hendrick taught you to strip your perceptions bare.  He asked us to see the essence of things and to unlearn the rules of representation or artifice.

 

In 2001, Cam returned to North Bay .  After an initial “decompression period,” he landed squarely on his fee, finding a great studio in the downtown core and securing a place in the Joan Ferneyhough Gallery stable of artists.  These fortuitous events coincided with a bit of an upturn in the Toronto art marketplace (unless that’s a contradiction in terms?). Armstrong is seeing more younger gallery owners in the city now and is encouraged by the rise of galleries like Katherine Mulherine Gallery, and the Redhead Collective.

 

For the past few years, Armstrong has been working on mixed media drawings and large and small-scale oil paintings on board.  As we moved into a discussion of his work and process, Cam referred often to influences from film, literature, philosophy, art theory and from his teachers.  He is “slightly obsessed” with oil paint and says that the medium “was the best teacher I ever had in terms of how to develop patience.”  When I asked about the “almost photographic” qualities of his paintings (the quasi-realist renderings of fuzzy bunnies, gleaming bowls and malevolent greyhounds) Armstrong first referenced the British painter Francis Bacon and his notions of “chance” as they apply to painting.  Cam is interested in illusory images that can be broken down and that seem to have a special reflective quality or sheen.  “It’s not that these objects are really reflecting light in this way, but that, upon examination they seem to be exuding an internal light.”

 

A second surface layer in many of these paintings contains elements of graffiti, Japanese and Persian calligraphy, and dimensional typography as well as a conjoining of “symbols” and drips or dribbles of pure paint.  These “abstract blobs” that hang at the edges of the paintings and drawings or crowd up against background images conjure a type of subconscious language in the viewer.  Armstrong calls these passages in the paintings “evocation devices.”

 

Our discussion went on for much longer than can be encapsulated in this short article, but I wanted to include and end with a very interesting theoretical connection and influence that seems ventral to Armstrong’s practice.  As we talked about the intricate (and subtle) compositions of the work, touching on the ideas of American abstract artists Ad Reinhart and Agnes Martin, Cam outlined a connection between his images and the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  In particular, he mentioned the French theorists’ concept of “Interior Cartography” that they develop in a text called: Nomadology.

 

Composition in painting sometimes means: how the image-maker leads the viewer through the picture planes.  Armstrong’s paintings, as in the writings of Deleuze and Guattari are “set up as engines” for thought and the imagination.  The cartoon cells that seem to be only partially erased from these images are the modules of thought that can be studied at different times.  Sometimes sublime, sometimes violent, the whole story of the images reflects a different sum of the parts at every viewing.  Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker, makes films that are constructed in such a way that every person seeing it will see a slightly different picture.  The work of art will coalesce into each individual viewer’s consciousness in unique ways.  Armstrong admitted that, when his images are working, they are echoing these experiments; they are modular and multi-layered narratives that interconnect but can be read in any order.

 

In an early artists’ statement Armstrong posted an appeal to gallery visitors who were finding resonances and meanings in the work.  It read: “if you have any answers, the artist would be happy to provide a full list of questions.”  To experience the nomadic evocations of Cam Armstrong yourself check out his upcoming solo exhibition at the Joan Ferneyhough Gallery at 157 First Avenue East in North Bay .  The show runs from September 11th to October 17th.

 

   

Tom Red

          Solvent Magazine

September 2005