Those interested in abstract art who are after some kind of essential visual truth from singular art works, who don’t give a flying urinal for Duchamp and his legacy should probably click and move on. But if you have been genuinely perplexed, annoyed or interested in debates centering around notions of how abstract art sits now in wholly new, complex realms of culture, history and politics then Armleder’s show at the new Dairy Art Centre just might be for you.
The best musicals are always the ones about putting a musical on and Mr Armleder certainly knows there’s no business like show business! One gets the feeling that we are getting the full force of ‘The Show About The Show’. This suits the opening of a new art space that celebrates the owners’ collections and their upbeat approach to showing ‘contemporary art’. But be ready for a visual/aural assault – an assault which is an important aspect of the installation art born out of a particular lineage of abstract art… See ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock’ by Allan Kaprow.
It could be easy to forget that Armleder has been around a long time in terms of contemporary art. Fluxus haunts this show. Imagine a history lesson with Duchamp at one end and Warhol at the other. But it’s the ghost of Beuys that gives this exhibition a deeply unnerving aspect; a dose of anarchic venom missing in much 90s art (think Koons) or later so called ‘slacker art’. From reading the convivial text on the hand-out, it is notions of popular culture and the everyday objects that litter our world which are celebrated here. But there is a deep uneasyness and jarring lack of slickness to the whole ambiance. And it could be said (whether this was the artist’s intention or not) that Armleder has found an interesting way of turning an aggravated dystopian eye on what has happened in art since the late 60s. Make no mistake: this show is a real rollercoaster ride through the clashes, coagulations and machinations of high art, the commercialisation of culture and the mechanics of the entertainment industries.
That brings me on nicely to what you might meet when you enter the gallery. We are confronted with a large sculpture. But is it sculpture that has become social furniture (a bar with stools) or furniture that has become ‘social sculpture’? Then we get the glitter balls (!) – emblems of Disco and 70s hedonism, overt symbols of kitsch. Armleder has suspended 12 of them, at around head height, straight down the middle of a largish but oddly shaped room leading into other spaces. If you stare long enough into the rotating balls they become strange vision enhancing machines. The thousands of tiny mirrors shatter and fragment the already strained sense of space. The ‘gallery’, the objects, the sculptures and paintings become atomised, ready to be reconfigured by the viewer.
It is difficult to get a sense of the real dimensions of the Dairy. Armleder has split, cut and cropped off oddly shaped spaces. Disco lights run riot in one roped off enclave. Harsh white neon tubes hum in uncomfortable piles on the floor or in strict alignments on the walls of another room. In a larger space shelving units, sometimes boxed off by various shades of coloured Perspex, contain a few stuffed animals and wilting flowers in vases. Cartoonish figurines squat beside TV screens that run footage of old B Movies. They all sit in their own little worlds amongst piles of art books and magazines. It’s as though the collected fragments of a domestic front room have found themselves in a disheveled Mondrian inspired shelving unit, itself languishing in the far corner of an Ikea warehouse. In contrast much harsher, almost clinical spaces contain CDs and album covers neatly arranged in glass cases. Christmas songs produced by a record label created by Armleder blare out. Yet again, apocalypse might only be one cubicle away! I can’t possibly cover all the surprises to be found here so I’ll finish up with the paintings on offer.
You would think that abstract painting would be the art that would suffer most in this strange realm but it’s surprising how Armleder’s paintings assert themselves, how they seem to suck up the order and the chaos around them. Take, for example, two strands of paintings by Armleder on show. We have paintings liberally laced with glitter that give us a taster of time honoured staining, dripping and pooling from the history of abstract painting. Then we see others that are harsh, hard-edged and stylised. Cartoon splats are mechanically repeated across empty dry white canvas à la Pop. Once upon a time an artist may have spent an entire career plumbing the depths of one aspect of these painterly approaches. But here Armleder forces these divergent themes into the harsh new world of the Dairy. For a start these canvases hang on walls painted as halved diagonals split between a white top half and coloured lower sections, echoing the design of the entry doors and roofing supports that crisscross the ceiling. The paintings are visually forced off and back on to the wall via this simple optical tug of war. Maybe because of this I feel pushed into the paintings – always looking for some kind of anchor in painterly space that the gallery space will vehemently not provide. As colours merge with the glitter on the long journey down the upright canvases, a yellowy, brown mud glistens through the chaos. This unholy combination of glitter and paint reminiscent of fecal matter feels very Beuysian. Beuys famously used fat and felt as the materials most apt for physical and perceptual transformations. Is Armleder suggesting that kitsch could somehow act in the same way? There’s no business like show business indeed!
John Armleder is on at the Dairy Art Centre during Spring and Summer 2013.