by Mark Van Proyen
In a 1928 statement published in Camerawork, Edward Weston wrote: “The camera sees more than the naked eye, so why not make use of it?” This rhetorical question resonates now more than ever, despite the fact that photographic seeing can no longer be equated with believing. As we enter the age of AI-enabled image-making, Weston’s statement also prompts a re-consideration and qualification of what the word “more” can mean. Because of the four-decade presence of digital image editing software and high-resolution printing, recent photography has significantly expanded its area of competence in several directions. The work of photographers like Andreas Gursky and Rineke Dijkstra (not to mention the astronomical photographs taken with the James Webb telescope) exemplify the move toward hyper-precise detail. In contrast, other artists like Uta Barth use the same technology to tack in the opposite direction, downplaying granular detail in favor of the evocative generalities of color and atmosphere. Bill Armstrong’s current exhibition of 30 brightly colored photographs takes us down the later path, prompting viewers to consider his work in the context of painterly stylistics rather than those extrapolated from the history of photography.
Most of the works included in this exhibition date from 2022 or 2023, with a few reaching back to as early as 2013. These subdivide into three groups, Mandalas, Buddhas, and works from a recent series called Unspoken, which tend to be larger than the others. In each, Armstrong employs different printing technologies, including digital pigment, C-printing and dye sublimation, the latter applied to thin sheets of reflective aluminum. The Unspoken series depicts two ambiguous figures set in architectural interiors
drenched in hazy Rothko-esqe color, the figures barely more than indistinct silhouettes that obscure signs of their individuality, although in many cases, it is possible to ascertain gender distinctions. Their positions and body language suggest tension, antagonism, recrimination and avowals, lending importance to the psychologically charged spaces between them. In Unspoken 15001, for example, we can make out an orange figure passing through a rectangular threshold while the upper torso of a magenta figure at the right seems to anxiously look on, partially hidden from the other behind a wall. Is the orange figure entering or exiting the scene? In what way might we see them as entangled, disentangled or moving toward re-engagement? Has something already happened between them, or is it about to happen? Anyone who has experienced the protracted dissolution of an intimate relationship should be able to pick up on the clues.
While we can’t be sure about the tensions between Armstrong’s figures, that pervasive ambiguity makes the images both provocative and mysterious. They seem to be on the verge of dissolving into fields of pure chromatic energy, rather like ghosts whose presence has been registered by a thermal imaging scanner. Indeed, given the many clues revealed and concealed in these images, we might feel obligated to think that any story we tell about them might be projections born of our own experience rather than something prompted by confirmable evidence. What we are left to contemplate, then, are the lavishly rich colors that complete the scenes, looking like flashes of fluorescent neon projected through a thick fog. In Unspoken 15022, the color is pleasantly appetizing, even as the two androgynous figures look like reluctant combatants entering an arena of conflict. Only in Unspoken 15028 do we glimpse a moment of reconciliation, albeit one that seems tentative at best.
The exhibition includes 18 earlier works, nine featuring centrally located Buddha figures, with the remainder showing circular configurations (mandalas) in 20 x 20-inch picture spaces. The Buddhas come across as outright hallucinations bathed in the kind of color we might associate with cinematic special effects. Indeed, we can see ambiguous figures sitting in lotus positions, but none show arms or symbolic hand gestures. No matter, because the color says it all, electrifying the figures against chromatically saturated grounds. There is a strategy at work here, as each Buddha reveals itself as a teacher, calling to mind the kind of interactive color relationships made famous by Joseph Albers’ theories and then ascribing mystical significance to them. The fact that the Buddha prints are executed on reflective surfaces heightens the glow that emanates from them, exemplifying the Bodhi consciousness within the enlightened self.
The nine Mandala prints display the same amount of highly saturated color. They, too, hark to cinematic sources, particularly films by Jordan Belson, such as Samadhi and Momentum (both 1967). The lesson is that every Mandala is a portal to another world and a higher plane of energized consciousness. In the case of Armstrong’s Mandalas, the path to a higher reality is marked and revealed by blazing color.
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Bill Armstrong: “Unspoken/Buddhas/Mandalas” @ Dolby Chadwick Gallery to September 2, 2023. Note: The gallery is closed August 6-12. Appointments are recommended: 415. 956.3560.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.