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John ARMSTRONG

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia born 1948

  • Movements: Japan, USSR, UK 1971
  • Brazil, Easter Island, USA, Europe 1973
  • UK, Europe 1978-82

One, two, three, fur
[1,2,3, Fur] 1972 Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
sculptures, hardwood, chain, wooden lasts, fur
Technique: hardwood, chain, wooden lasts, fur
32.3 h x 101.4 w x 18.4 d cm
Purchased 1972
Accession No: NGA 72.312

MORE DETAIL

  • The resemblance between John Armstrong’s work and Dada and Surrealist objects is often remarked.[1] The Australian sculptor’s small boxes and other assemblages, as well as his large constructions using wood, bring together hanging components, animal or synthetic fur and found objects.[2] The physical sensation of materials―contrasts between the weightlessness of fur and the heaviness of wood―as well as word- and visual-play are key to his art. In 1,2,3, fur 1972 three wooden shoe-lasts with fluffy ‘treads’ are hung from chains in a rudely constructed box. Unlike Jean Arp’s wooden reliefs, or one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Armstrong’s work has all the rough and ready quality of Australian bush furniture or vernacular architecture.

    Armstrong achieved international prominence when he was awarded first prize at the twelfth Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil, in 1973.[3] Feet 1973, one of three large-scale works for the biennale, and several other smaller assemblages around this time, also feature wooden shoe-lasts.[4] The components of Feet―75 wooden structures in the form of upright sawhorses, each with a last hanging from chainsare displayed in two parallel lines, staggered so that the feet might be walking.[5] By virtue of its title, or its single row of lasts, 1,2,3, fur may be interpreted as the ‘run-up’ to Armstrong’s Bienal entry. Fur and chains are the other elements common to Armstrong’s works at this time. Fur is, of course, an unusual material for sculpture, and a substance favoured by many Surrealists and subsequent artists.[6] The intriguing combination of elements in 1,2,3, fur―the rough texture of the hardwood, set against the smooth wooden last and the fluffy rabbit fur―is part of its attraction. Elsewhere Armstrong has juxtaposed fur and chains with wood, canvas, clamps, shackles, brass taps and other hardware―even a ball and cage. In 1,2,3, fur he has included a little flag-like tuft of fur outside the frame, at the front of the piece. As Daniel Thomas points out, Feet is an absurdly literal sculptural illustration of the phrase ‘walking on air’.[7] The point might equally be made of 1,2,3, fur. Indeed it is one of the fascinations of sculptures such as Armstrong’s that ordinary materials become surprising.

    Lucina Ward
    Curator,
    International Painting and Sculpture
    National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

     

    [1] James Gleeson, for example, commented in 1971 that Armstrong clearly had the ‘taste and temperament of a true Dadaist and it is only an accident of time that landed him in 1971 instead of 1917.’ Sun, Sydney, 3 February 1971, p 46. Quoted in Ken Scarlett, Australian sculptors, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p 21; see also Patrick McCaughey, ‘The Avant-garde can, and does, change its spots’, The Age, 18 July 1973, quoted in Ken Scarlett, 1980, p 23

    [2] One of Armstrong’s early objects was a fur-covered shovel in homage to Duchamp’s readymade, In advance of the broken arm 1915

    [3] His three exhibited works―Bag rack, Prism and Feet, all of 1973―are in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia

    [4] Carry and Footstool, both dated 1972, are constructed from wood and lasts; both works are in the National Gallery of Australia

    [5] In São Paulo the lines were arranged in two long arms which met in a ‘V’, while for an exhibition at the Albert Hall in Canberra, they were set up in a series of right angles

    [6]Such asMeret Oppenheim, Sylvie Fleury and Kathy Temin in this exhibition

    [7] Austrália Bienal de São Paulo, 1973: Jan Senbergs and John Armstrong, Visual Arts Board, Sydney, 1973


    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )