Inappropriately enough, in the 1980s, John Armleder was briefly associated with the Neo-Geo movement. The geometric idiom in painting is chiefly a means of closing down the arbitrariness of subjective decision-making, whereas Armleder has always been interested in letting what he has called “the great whatever” have full rein. And yet he also claims that his paintings are “inevitable.” If this is a paradox, it is one he cultivates by offsetting paintings made by chaotically spilling color down tall canvases with those decorated with hard-edge patterning. Common to both idioms is repetition; otherwise, the incisive, geometric order of one foils the uncontrollable processes of the other.
Armleder thrives on such contradictions. (Functional Sculpture): Life Is a Bench (2014) places two elements
into an equation that will not resolve itself. A vertical painting of six yellow stripes hangs above a designer bench of seven timber strips. The bench’s surface has almost the same dimensions as the painting, the stripes corresponding to the spaces between the bars. The painting’s narrowness and awkward proximity to the bench give it the look of a functional decorative screen, while the bench cannot really do its job (be sat on) because its gallery context has made sculpture out of it. Their conjunction has disabled both elements. Ian McKeever once described a large oil painting as looking like a “wild animal” in a living room. Armleder can make what would seem at home in a living room appear like an elephant in a gallery.
Whereas many artists are anxious to define the niche their art occupies, Armleder has the confidence to highlight the gray areas between the idioms he adopts. An untitled work from 1990—two neon tubes displayed horizontally on a motorized panel, shifting left and right in counter-motion to each other—is kinetic furniture and Minimalistic sculpture, as well as a kind of dysfunctional sign pathetically overruled by the grinding sound its mechanism makes. This whirring noise might be the soundtrack of a cartoon stuck on repeat, its clumsiness contrasting with the brash brilliance of Ho, Ho, Ho! (2014), a freestanding wall painted on both sides with a repeating motif of a grinning Christmas tree topped by a big star. On one side, the trees are green except for a row of red ones at head height; on the other, the colors are reversed, a meaningless binary variation that plays on the double dance of the two neon strips. There’s a Beckettian absurdity to these twinnings, the components as good as interchangeable, riffing off one another to no end, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon or his Mercier and Camier. Armleder’s irony works by means of such slippages between idioms (such as the wall painting and the neon sculpture) set up to expose the pretensions of one another. He stages a postmodern circus that short-circuits its own freedoms, its bewildering spectrum of options.
And yet, his irony is never unadulterated by earnestness. The smiling trees exude a festive cheer that is corrupted by a sense of festivity’s futility, as is the exhilaration invoked by two pour paintings, Wawa and Transport (both 2014), hung facing each other across the room. They are made—as Armleder or his assistants have been making them since the 1980s—by allowing paint to run down from the top of a canvas, mixing with previous pours. Glitter makes their brittle surfaces twinkle under the spotlights. Like everything Armleder does, they are rapaciously allusive, comprehending Morris Louis’s early Veils—which also tend to twinkle as pigment separates out from dispersion—as well as repetitive process painting of the 1980s, such as Ian Davenport’s. But they have nothing of Louis’s transcendentalism or Davenport’s geeky serialism. They are rude challenges to find arbitrariness irresistible, as well as warnings against taking their apparent nonchalance at face value. As the Belgian painter Walter Swennen once said, “There is nothing as hard as saying, or painting, no matter what.”