London artist Conrad Armstrong has been riding on his bike through the nine circles of Hell – what he reimagines as London’s TFL system. Drifting back and forth between South and East, he observes the landscape evolution. It gets demolished. It is born again. Buildings are left behind. They are repurposed. Developers promise for something greater, taller, shinier. People move around them, away from them. This is city life. Concrete and steel are left naked, half-destroyed, half-demolished. Cracked open. At this stage of bearing, the city shows truth to itself: broken, layered, turbulent.
In his upcoming solo exhibition Born Again at Stour Galleries, London, Armstrong reflects on his relationship to his geographical environment, his culture, whilst laying out his emotional, located memories (He’s a Streatham boy, after all!). Psychogeography forms the backbone of this exhibition, taking a strong influence from the underground scene, his paintings are held by safety pins, torn apart, collaged over one another, destroyed by fire, or created through fire, and terrorised by spray paint. His ceramics, on the other hand, though less visually violent still throw us outside the gallery space into the wild streets. They image 99 shiny porcelain shards, each attached to a British flag keyring [worded ’Punk is not Dead’]; a frozen Angel of Light [also known as Lucifer]; and a group of city blokes [just doing bloke stuff].
Armstrong has been riding on his bike, drifting back and forth between Streatham and Hackney Wick. In this ritual, he is both the witness and participator of the city’s fast motion. Full speed, time throughout the journey is interrupted by the vast, vertical Shard, which tears the landscape in half. It is still, untouched, unattainable. It is always present. The Shard looks over us and we look up to it. It is pointlessly tall. It is painfully phallic. The artist is looking at the Shard and thinking about the Pyramids. Has the Shard become the superimposed shrine of London? If so, what are we being forced to look up to? Shine baby, shine!
Armstrong’s practice inverts the city: he speaks of Dante’s Inferno as a literary inspiration for his vision. Its symbolic narratives are to be built from this classic and in this context, The Angel of Light, who lives frozen at the bottom of hell has moved into an air-conditioned penthouse at the top of the Shard. He watches over us. We look up to his house. It’s a ritualistic, mirroring thing.
Born Again has been pushed forward [or held back] for a year and a half now due to Covid. In the postponing of Demolition, the previous title for this show, the work takes its new title with the optimism of re-engaging and re-connecting.
As ways of being [always in relation to the landscape] shift, so too Armstrong’s mediums – his signature fire paintings move onto fire retardant canvases and photographic paper pastes that resemble weathered city wall posters. In the 2019 paintings Let [Me] Go, Angel of Light, Take [Care] and Portrait [of Self] fire is the material, it creates through destruction, melting the plastic and acrylic, playing into the canvas, burning its surface and cracking open its layers. Without full control, unique results are realised within a demolishing continuum. What is painting anyway? And why is the city so violent? Is Armstrong attempting to strip London from its shininess and reveal a hidden meaning? It ain’t shiny, baby.
In contrast, Looking At The Shard, Thinking About ThePyramids and Nothing but Love in My Heart are some of the first paintings Armstrong created in 2020. Looking At The Shard, Thinking About The Pyramids marks a breakthrough within Armstrong’s practice. It is the monument for the looped statement he is been obsessing over for a few years now. It is ridiculously tall. It is painfully phallic. Thirteen grand and pointless meters of canvas vertically hang from the ceiling, only to remind us of how stupid and elitist the landscape we inhabit is: that of art, or the city. Nothing but Love in My Heart is naked, confessional. Streams of thought are cut down into pieces and held together by safety pins, functioning as road signs, connectors between locations within a psychological map. Within the fragmented frames, images and text are expressive confrontations. Or perhaps, to the artist’s demons.
In these two works, fire retardant canvases reflect the shift of the city – extinguished. The fire has been postponed and the canvases await, slowly, close to stillness. Perhaps, like us, for engagement, to be seen outside the studio pit. To participate again. Despite oxygen, fuel and heat have resided in the work all along. The expressive, energetic spray paint gestures and fast acrylic, pen-like strokes convince us of that. The work appears unsettled and resilient. The paintings become more like sketches: simple, bare, undisguised, intuitive. The painting is emptying out and so is the city. Where did all the blokes go?
‘Freedom Movement’ by Conrad Armstrong, 2020