Archives for posts with tag: Minimalism

Steve Armstrong, The Descent of Geometry, oil, brass and fibreglass resin on particle board, 50″ x 50″, 1981-85.

Metaphorical thinking is like using a funnel the wrong way round.

It’s time for a third voice to consider the issues raised in Self Expression and Conceptual Painting and Repressed Anger. The former was a sincere attempt to understand beauty, the latter, an attempt to apply raw self-analysis to my understanding of art. Lately, I’ve been studying Hunter S. Thompson to get an angle on his amazing talent for digression and hyperbole. Then I thought, what if this technique were directed inwards instead of out. But enough of that, down to business:

I have a friend who is an art critic and in a newspaper review around 2001 he used the term ‘conceptual painting’. I coined this term in the title of a painting in 1999, and no doubt, it would have been part of our occasional conversations. I then used the idea, but not the term itself, in a review published in Lola magazine in 2000.

This is all extremely unimportant, especially since my friend used the term to refer to a different idea altogether, but it has revealed something relevant about my character: I had a very strong compulsion to write this because I hope that the term “conceptual painting” might catch on, and if someone else received credit for it, I would feel a sense of loss. This is somewhat ridiculous of course: Was I going to miss out on sex, money, and power perhaps, not to mention the high life on the lecture circuit? No, what I want is credit, respect or even congratulations. This is probably why a discussion of conceptual painting showed up in my first blog post.

I have to wonder why these things matter to me. I remember reading about the conflict between Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara over the provenance of the word “dada” and thinking as I read, “this dispute is of no importance, I don’t know them and they don’t know me, they are no more than words on a page, and even if I were acquainted with them, it still wouldn’t make much difference and it would, in fact, only be a problem if I wanted to stay on friendly terms with both of them”. Besides that, they’re dead. I am sure that Huelsenbeck and Tzara experienced righteous anger over their issue, and that is unfortunate. Fame creates resentful new wounds.

What is important is what is done, not who did it. Why should I care about what a bunch of people I have never met, and might never meet, think of some deed I allegedly performed? Since Shakespeare’s not around to enjoy the recognition, why does it matter who wrote those plays? Although there would be a reason for Shakespeare and me to demand recognition if we were in it for the money. And naturally enough, that has been a component for both of us, but not a terribly important one, because he’s dead and can’t collect, and I’ve always had a good day job. As I wrote in 1995, if we face the facts, “we would tell the world that its money belongs in hell. If art is real, then it is serious.”

It should be obvious that we only desire credit for a deed when it is not sufficiently satisfying simply as a deed done. But this becomes less obvious once the euphoria from viewing a completed work starts to fade – when the cash gets scarce, the cheaper wines look better. The Descent of Geometry was fully satisfying as a deed done for almost fifteen years, then the desire to justify and explain it crept in, as evidenced by my writings from around 1999. Those writings have been edited and incorporated in these three related posts.

Ockham’s Razor would guide us to the explanation with the fewest assumed entities but Armstrong’s Bin provides us with the most flattering explanation for anything that puzzles us. Schopenhauer knows why this would be the case – he said that self-interest is the strongest argument, and I’m sure he said this because he had a great sense of humour. The Bin tells me that my painting demands a beautiful aetiology, and most people who see it, seem fond of it, so I guess I could do worse than load it up with meaning. I’m going to indulge myself.

From 1981 until 1985 I occasionally worked on this very stubborn painting. When I felt reasonably satisfied with it (that being the point when I realized that anything else I did would only make it worse), I signed the back and wrote, “Beyond Böcklin’s Island: an arbitrary geometry seeking a meaning in Romance while Franz Schubert has the poignancy of death”. Shortly afterwards this title embarrassed me. I crossed it out and wrote, “The Descent of Geometry”.

Arnold_Böcklin v.3 1883

 Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, third version (of many), oil on wood, 150 x 80 cm, 1883.

I have noticed a particular trope that has turned up regularly in my work. I have frequently made illusory space on a celestial scale and then interrupted the picture plane and made it difficult to see coherently. I have done this by adding bits of metal, drilling holes, working on peg- board, adding painted shapes to pencil drawings, or by other means that force a difficulty into the act of coherent perception.

For example, a small piece of brass in a painted sky has to be unseen as an extraneous thing for the painting to become a picture of an odd flying object. The geometrical object in the Descent is made of brass strips arranged like cloisonné. It’s fun to un-see things, it’s a childish and playful thing to do like imaginatively turning your bedroom ceiling into an ocean with the ceiling fixture as a strange boat. I’ve done that.

That’s what we do with all pictures anyway, although we are mostly unaware of doing it. We studiously overlook the means of image delivery in magazines films and photographs to get straight to the picture. I hesitate to mention paintings as well, because as a painter, I never overlook the means, I look for the means. I have done this to the extent that, on occasion, I haven’t noticed the picture, and instead, merely seen the painting. It’s startling to suddenly notice the picture.

pegboard yellow frame

Steve Armstrong, A Small Redemption of the Machine Age, acrylic on pegboard, 40″ x 52″, 1993.

I think facts are poetic, and it’s facts, much more so than pictures, that are there to be seen in paintings – especially straightforward, non-conceptual paintings. A painting is like a new spoon triumphantly raising vegetables to the surface of your soup. It is a shroud of conviction, a moist daubing that brings relief, and a television carved from a single block of wood. When you get by the technical stuff (the professional looking that a painter engages in), the leftovers are metaphorical.

In The Descent, the brass insert is the emissary of science that emerges as our savior from Romantic darkness – this grandiose affair depicts the story of Modernism. Science and technology have pushed past all the protests of a Luddite Romanticism.

The Descent of Geometry offers mythological events to explain the origins of science envy in Modernism. There are scientific airs in various Modernist practices – Impressionism with its theories of perception (a defensive posture against photography), Surrealism with its thoughts on intentionality and coincidence versus cause, or Minimalism and Earthworks with their musings about ontology and an Industrial Sublime. The idea of an Avant-garde itself, holds the concept of progress.


Vladimir Tatlin, model for Monument to the Third International, 1919.

I’m left with the feeling that Modernism carried aspects of Romanticism with it into the Twentieth Century. Modernism has a streak of the Romantic “Sublime” through it, although it had become industrial and technological. The Eiffel Tower and its child, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Malevich’s White Square, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and countless other things all attest to this fact. Baudelaire for instance, preferred harbours over natural coastlines. I understand this feeling. In spite of Böcklin, Turner’s steam engines haven’t been shaken off.


J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed, oil on Canvas, 90.8 x 121.9 cm., 1844. National Gallery, London

With The Descent of Geometry I wanted to make the picture plane a figure and have the world as its ground. I chose the “L” shape because it looks arbitrary and has as many sides as a cube. Hopefully this suggests that the painting is a thing as much as it is a picture.


Steve Armstrong, Zocor, oil on cardboard mounted on panel, 6.5″ x 7.5″, 2006.

This same preoccupation returned with the box paintings. With all my art I want to make the picture plane a figure, and that’s a statement so strong I hesitate to make it, but at the moment I can’t think of any exceptions. It explains why my pencil drawings never go to the edge of the paper and why I make painted sculpture (free standing picture planes in the round). I cannot justify any of this for one very important reason – we do not get to choose our desires.


Steve Armstrong, Rodchenko’s Column, acrylic on douglas fir, 12″ x 12″ x 63″, 1997.

I also see the desire to make the picture plane a figure in the work of Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. I think that is why their lines do not make figures. I may be wrong about them, but that does not really matter because regardless of what they are up to, picture plane reification is what I want to do anyway. It is not necessary for me to know why. It is also not necessary for me to know whether I have any predecessors with this goal. Desire simply dips into my life like a rudder. Thus a painting is a Rosetta Stone that translates decisions.


The Rosetta Stone, granodiorite, 114.4 x 72.3 x 27.93 cm, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek script, 196 BCE.

The Descent of Geometry concerns our nasty habit of looking for simple answers to complicated questions. It is no excuse that we fail to notice how complicated the questions are. The Descent also concerns how we situate our desires in unattainable places, as Ludwig Feuerbach pointed out way before Freud and me (projection).

I suppose the Descent concerns how an art object might be indiscernible from an ordinary object. If one were to think otherwise, it is plainly obvious that Romanticism never really went away because for an art-thing to be different from an ordinary thing, it needs to have a mysterious component – something Sublime perhaps. Fortunately, the issue whether any particular thing is art or not, is of no interest whatsoever, especially to artists. Some things are interesting because of their intentional way of being the way they are, and that makes them artish things. Some things are interesting because of failed intentions, or qualities that are irrelevant to their intentional way of being the way they are. These sorts of things are not artish at all.

The Descent of Geometry is about how our use of the Sublime to flatter ourselves is ludicrous and shameful. Taking pleasure in such mysteries is unworthy and I suspect that mystery, being the genus that contains the species patriotism, is, besides the hiding place of scoundrels, the weapon of the baffled as well. Hegel, that Romantic old fellow, provides a fine example of using mystery to cloak vacuity. Oscar Wilde said something about the mystery being in the visible and a corollary of Wilde’s observation would be, “the invisible has greater clarity for us”. And in fact, invisibility has greater clarity than even glass. Invisible pictures reveal visible paintings.

I can only add that I don’t believe in ghosts but they scare me, and I conclude from this that when an idea is fundamental, it is not necessarily true, but it nonetheless stimulates my glands. A good argument has a cheap elegance about it, but beauty is found more easily in ideas that can’t be proven.

I have some advice: Never use things in the manner they were intended, and always use the wrong tool for the job unless, of course, your ambition is to thrill the shopkeepers of the world. In conclusion, consider an artist’s career: As a rule, critics and gallery operators are not terribly visual, most artists are too busy trying to figure out how their work is independent of yours (including me), and the public can be very vexing. At least people like big geometry in the sky, which explains the popularity of air shows and fire works.


When I came across Berndaut Smilde, I immediately liked his work. There’s a good reason for this: To a certain extent we’re ploughing the same field. I herewith have a passable excuse for posting some of my own work.

1080 fresco

Brain Cloud, from 1983, 16″ x 22″. It’s a fresco of sorts – acrylic paint mixed into Polyfilla(TM) on aluminum window screening stapled to particle board with a hardwood frame painted with commercial enamel. This is also my opportunity to point out that I came up with the silly idea of a brain cloud way before Tom Hanks was diagnosed with the same affliction in the movie Joe and the Volcano. It also seems to be the case that I have based my career on materials and approches that beg to be underestimated. It’s passive-aggressive I suppose.

ut88 7x9'5

Another silly title … A Case of Meteorological Hyphenization, 1988, 7″ x 9.5″. This one’s a colour photograph (a C41 print in fancy talk) mounted on plywood (which I gessoed to protect the print from acid in the plywood), surrounded by linoleum and covered with clear table top epoxy. On the very top there are two blobs of titanium white oil paint connected with a cotton thread that came out of my clothing – my pants probably. One needs to seize opportunities when they arise. The usual description of art would have said, “mixed media”, but that’s not very informative.

I only just realized, while writing this, that this hyphen in the sky is a precursor of work to come close to twenty years later.

prmrs92 20x29

This one’s included because after all these years, I still really like it: The Infinite Choice of Primaries, 1992, 20″ x 29″. It’s a copper foil covered circuit board painted with acrylic and mounted with linoleum on plywood. I obtained a stash of un-etched circuit boards from my local scrapyard which is a great place to browse – except for the dog. My friend was bitten by the dog once, but perhaps because he’s a communist, he didn’t sue the proprietor. He needed a lot of stitches.

My daughter’s friend tried putting on some red/blue glasses that came with a 3D comic book to look at this painting. Hilary was a funny girl. She’s still funny, but now she’s a woman. Little did she realize that as an art college student I had spent quite a while experimenting with various “hand-tooled” methods to suggest or produce virtual three dimensions.

David Rabinowitch – Metrical Construction in 13 Masses Montreal

The lovely thing about the circuit boards are the arrays of tiny holes. They remind me of miniature David Rabinowitch sculptures, an artist I’m fond of.

A 28310

At one time, 1974 maybe, I made a scale model painting of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967. It was about 8 inches wide, on stretched canvas, just like Barney’s version. HO scale New York School is a very amusing idea, especially when you don’t take the weave of the canvas into consideration. That makes it more of an “essencing” as opposed to a model. I made up “essencing”. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where the painting is now.

extphen76 8'5x13cropped

This pencil drawing is called, Externalization Phenomenon, 1976, 8.5″ x 13″. I was an art student at the time and I was teaching myself how to draw, because you don’t learn that kind of thing in art college – it’s more about attitude, networking and fashionable theory. At the time it seemed radical to me to develop a skill, and in particular, a skill in one of the least valued mediums at the time. The futility of hand rendering in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was extremely appealing to me: It seemed like a conceptual art kind of thing to do – a do-it-yourself homemade variety Sol Lewitt or Andy Warhol process. I’ve always found it easy to commit subversion in a way that no-one notices. In my student days I also made some Minimalist pieces with hand tools – take that Donald Judd! The art hanging on the wall in the drawing was a pseudo-minimalist piece I did the year before. As for the title, I was reading a lot of Jung at the time and he uses the term ‘externalization phenomenon’ to refer to synchronistic events. With my developing drawing skills, I embarked on a series of drawings of ghosts.


I still draw from time to time. This is a drawing of the newspaper from 2007, 22″ x 30″. In all modesty I can say it’s amazing what I can do with a 2B pencil.


And this is a single object still life from 2008, also 22″ x 30″. I like single object still-lifes because multiple objects gets a bit too narrative for me. I don’t do allegory.


This is Kipping, 20″ x 28″, 1984, oil on corrugated fiberglass, named for a good friend of mine who painted many clouds back in the day and also liked to distress the support to create ambiguity, something Clement Greenberg called one of the chief sources of pleasure in art.


I like to put things in boxes and I don’t often use masking tape. Instead, I’m obsessively careful and usually get into a very pleasant meditative state when I do it. Untitled, acrylic on MDF, 11″ x 14″, 2006.


Untitled, graphite on paper, 9″ x 11″, 2007. Peculiar clouds, I don’t know what came over me. It might be about the formation of clouds as putative objects.

2009 black2 16 x 16 a on panel

These last two show my interest in IBM Selectric(TM) typewriter balls which has been with me at least a decade. They give me an interesting new take on clouds. The black one is untitled, acrylic on panel, 16″ x 16″, 2009. I press the typewriter ball into the dried surface and then rub the white paint into the crevice as if I were inking an intaglio printing plate.

2012 001

This is also untitled, coloured pencil on paper, 9″ x 11″, 2012. With dry media, I press the typewriter ball first and then the pencil scoots right over the crevice.

The point of all this is much more difficult to articulate than how I did it. Suffice it to say that language seems to reflect our hard wired fundamental categories of understanding (Steven Pinker). But I suspect that the cart is sometimes put in front of the horse in that language is given the honour of being the filter. Oh, never mind, this is irrelevant, my hostility towards post-structuralism is irrelevant, and there’s no way I’m sufficiently well informed to venture anything useful on this subject. Once again theory tries to step in to justify art. Art needs no justification whatsoever.

I just think it’s interesting to pretend that linguistic elements are real in the same way as rocks and clouds, although, it would be easier to devise a language/cloud analogy than a language/rock analogy. Then again, maybe not. That would make quite the poetry contest. Nonetheless, it’s certainly easier for me to draw and paint language as cloud-like as opposed to rock-like, but that’s probably because it’s the cloud metaphor that intrigues me. The letters look as if they came into being in the sky, just like clouds and stars do. That thrills me. It seems so mythological.


A detail of the drawing to make it easier to see. I have around 20 typewriter balls thanks to eBay – various fonts, scientific symbols, Japanese.

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