Benjamin Armstrong: From the depths of the sea - Art Collector

Issue 60, April - June 2012

Photo: Kirstin Gollings

Benjamin Armstrong’s watercolours of roiling seas act like stage sets, depictions of possible primordial worlds for his sculptures to inhabit writes Kyla McFarlane.

Working across sculpture, drawing and printmaking, Benjamin Armstrong has always been materially adventurous, creating ambiguous, literate, seductive works that are both wildly imaginative and rich in reference. In April he will exhibit a new body of sculptures alongside ink and watercolour works on paper. For his new sculptures, Armstrong is using wood, constructing large, sinewy, freestanding forms from stacked layers of plywood connected with steel, with pokerwork burnt into their lower roots. Larger than the human form in scale, with faceless heads and multiple limbs, they allude to oversized mandrake plants wrenched from the earth.

Historically, the root structure of this ancient plant has been immortalised in medieval literature and elsewhere as reminiscent of a human form, the screams of which when being uprooted were able to kill anyone within earshot. This magical thinking, the fantastical confusion between man and matter and the relationship to the forces of gravity give this work its imaginative thrust. How might these giant structures become wrenched from their underground lairs and how do they balance themselves upon fresh ground?

But that’s not all. The layers, or veneers, of the plywood also recall growth rings on a tree trunk. I think, too, of the practice of ringbarking that can kill a tree. Like most of Armstrong’s works, however, these many and various associations are not literal, nor exact. Instead, they might be seen as gentle red herrings, allowing the works to be more suggestive than representative. In Holding a Thread, Armstrong’s monograph published by Emblem Books in 2010, curator Juliana Engberg cannily observed that, in their referential uncertainty, Armstrong’s artworks “provoke our imagination and activate our restless unconscious”.

Much has also been written about the relationship that Armstrong’s works have to theories around the representation of the body and metaphors of blindness and sight, in reference to his recurring depiction of eyeballs, disembodied limbs and waxen cavities that suggested deep and visceral bodily interiors. Less has been said about the wry wit and material playfulness that is especially evident in this latest body of work, but which has often been present in earlier pieces. For example, an early sculpture, Conflict (2003-5), has always intrigued me for its striking combination of poetry, humour and seductive materiality. Here, Armstrong presented two headless, comic-book eyeballs on a precarious table’s edge, with conical glass lines of sight pressing into two black glass tendrils lying across the table. A more recent sculpture from 2010, Baguette, featured a bronze bread stick suspended in between two glass vessels – a kind of absurd alchemical failure with scatological undertones. Similarly, at first sight, Armstrong’s new plywood works in progress cause me to laugh, for several reasons. Strangely animated, despite their weighty forms, they stand together like a small, cross-species community that is neither animal nor vegetable, but not completely outside the realms of both these categories. One appears mid-step on its spindly legs, its featureless head looming large over Armstrong as he works with the jigsaw in his studio. It’s not the horror story of Shelley’s Frankenstein, but there are shades of the 19th century scientist, building creatures he then can’t control.

Formally, Armstrong’s shift to plywood as his primary material is a significant move from the blown glass and wax sculptures he is widely known for – the weightiness and opacity of the wood is initially a stark contrast to the transparent, frozen liquid qualities of blown glass and malleability of hot wax. But there are strong lines of material thought running through Armstrong’s practice and this new body of sculptures is both an adventurous shift and part of a continuum. Wood has formed the hidden structure of several of his sculptures, and tendrils and tubers, wayward botanical forms and an interest in growth, decay and gravity have been explored across several bodies of his work, as have the processes of transformation, metamorphosis and the passage or stalling of time.

Many of his earlier works resembled what he describes as “one way hourglasses,” with various forms of matter sliding through and congealing at the edges of hollow glass tubes traversing from one upturned glass vessel into another.

The suite of large ink and watercolour drawings Armstrong will exhibit alongside his sculptures in April also alludes to a larger vision. For me, they suggest a fantastical universe in which his sculptures might roam – washed up on shore by the roiling waves in Swell; warmed and watched over by the sky-dwelling eyes and rainbow-tinted beams of sunlight in Victory and subjected to a mysterious form of electrical energy produced from the disembodied hands in Untitled – liquid imaginings of a strange, enticing, alchemical world. They might also be viewed as the artist’s investigations into worlds imagined across existing knowledge systems – the vast art historical, scientific, philosophical and literary landscapes built across time and myriad cultures that are threaded through his practice in many and various ways. •

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