Nongfu Spring Corner, 2012, oil on chromogenic print, 20 x 30 inches
Exhibition essay, “Need to Know,” Essay by Ben Portis
There is but one intrinsic condition to divulge, neither immediately evident nor explained by the still and moving pictures of John Armstrong and Paul Collins. That is the respective home base of each artist: John, Toronto; Paul, Paris. Keep this in mind and many of the works’ mysteries marvellously fall away while still leaving sufficient mysteries in place to marvel at too.
John and Paul have worked collaboratively for thirteen years, one third of the time that they have known one another since meeting at York University. Their duo project arose with N.E. Thing-like emphases on simultaneity, artificial collapse of distance, the convergence of chance within established parameters and the celebration of difference. However, the nature of the practice has almost entirely reversed itself since. The new works develop from passage, mainly the physical conveyance of the works-in-progress back and forth from one creator to the other for as long as necessary. This brings along the passage of time, duration, and the convergence of intentions, agreement. Their condition of separation is allayed by continuous correspondence, frequent cross-visits and occasional joint excursions.
Even apart, John and Paul habitually roam and explore, pursuing constant change of scene as if to return home with attitudes of unfamiliarity and fresh apprehension. The personally cultivated traveler’s outlook plays out most apparently in the photographs that support and start the pictures completed with paint. The photographs are taken absolutely independently by one or the other and somehow chosen by both (one mystery intact).
Over the years, the overt subject-ness of John and Paul’s photographs has subsided. The new pictures are united thematically, all titled a “corner,” although that suggestion is emphatically challenged by the overlay of painted lines under which almost all the articulations of aperture space vanish. Yet, the titles retain residual identities with the photographic locale (St. Peter’s Corner; Fish Camp Corner; Seine Corner) or a key feature of an unspecified locale (Exit Corner; Antenna Corner; Logo Corner). In only a couple, the notion of place is so putative (Recurring Dream Corner) or the presence of a corner so vague (Smokestack Corner) to shift description over to the finished work with paint. Generally the coloured striations cancel conventional reading of the original image.
The negated photos relinquish their depth and flatten out, pronouncing the “graphic” elements of photography that largely go unnoticed. The illusionary quality has been transferred to the painted line patterns, which achieve a complex supra-materiality and spatial substance that fly in the face of the indifference of their application. The paint appears to have been brushed on with primary concern for its regularity of layer, depth and width, and, ultimately, indistinguishable attribution to either the hand of John or of Paul. Of course the tendency and trust in team intuition, including sublime colour decisions, cannot be explained by methodical technique (mystery number two).
The bands of paint are applied in measured spatial relationships to one another as well, both in relative distance from their colour kin and in layered crossings of optically hued interference. But the lines feel unfettered, threatening to spray explosively apart, so powerfully concentrated are their energies, atomic.
All of the above observations suggest that the titles serve to distract from the real site of these works, which is the studio. The laboratory makes an excellent analogy to the practice of John and Paul. Their radical inquiry into the constitution of the picture gains validity by being passed between two.
John and Paul both have long careers as art instructors. This purview arises in two related videos, Academy Tianjin and Academy Caochangdi, shot in China during a 2011 residency trip. Or, like the photographs, initially shot. Tianjin features a walking camera shot through an art academy vacant at the end of session, littered with abandoned student studies and belongings, its furniture heaped in the middle of rooms in advance of clean-up. Caochangdi is a series of sustained tripod shots along a shallowly flooded street. A succession of vehicles, pedestrians and light gusts of wind occasionally disturb the evenly reflective surface of the water. Ripples radiate and rebound from the curb, creating a comparable banded interference to the previously described paint.
Each video runs for about an hour. During Caochangdi, a succession of stories (recounting China and other artist-residency encounters, personal memories of learning art, experiences teaching, reencounters with former students and teachers) crawls right-to-left across the upper frame in a steady horizontal line. Any concurrence of text and image is arbitrary. The stories are vivid and lead one to drift away from the monotonous picture. By contrast, Tianjin is broken by static, slash lines painted on the wall, akin to the treatment of photographs. It suggests an experiential correlation between pattern and narrative. The parallel streams of imagery extend the bounds of the studio lab further still.
Ben Portis is the curator of the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie.
Since 2000, John Armstrong, who lives in Toronto, and Paul Collins, who lives in Paris, have maintained a collaborative, intermedia art practice. Their photographs, videos and painted images record places, events and objects they come across in the course of their daily lives in Toronto and Paris. These elements are variously juxtaposed to suggest narratives that play with the porous nature of individual and collective memory.
A selection of galleries, museums, festivals and site projects they have exhibited in include the following: Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival 2010 at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (Toronto); Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2008 (Toronto); Artothèque de Caen (France); Kunsthalle Erfurt (Germany); Faux Mouvement (Metz, France); Maison de la culture Côtes-des-Neiges, Le Mois de la photo à Montréal; Truck (Calgary, Alberta); Platform Centre for Photography and Media Arts (Winnipeg, Manitoba); La galerie ESCA (Nîmes, France); Oakville Galleries (Oakville, Ontario); Sir Wilfred Grenfell College Art Gallery (Corner Brook, Newfoundland); and VAV Gallery, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec).
John Armstrong is a studio professor on the collaborative Art and Art History Program with Sheridan in Oakville and the University of Toronto Mississauga. Paul Collins is a studio professor in the Department of Communication/Intermedia at the École supérieure d’arts et médias de Caen.
Selected images below from “Corner” series 2012 and “cache misére” series 2008 – 2010
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