The elephant in the dark

Jihad Muhammad John Armstrong
Fireworks Gallery, Brisbane

In a catalogue essay accompanying his recent exhibition, John Armstrong used the image of an elephant in a dark room as a metaphor for art practice. As one approaches "in the dark" the elephant presents itself to the touch, testing the validity of the interlocutor's hypothesis (self hypothesized reality). Are we to understand from this parable that art is a white elephant, pinkened by the blind-folded encounter? An hallucination in which art becomes anything one wants it to be? Perhaps a mammoth equivocation. Fortunately the work in this exhibition provides for more challenging observations and offers less temptation for such recipient platitudes.

For some time now this artist's work has presented itself with a kind of emblazoned armour of very active surfaces collaged or painted with repetitive motifs. The hung and free standing works assembled for this exhibition date, for the most part, from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and are typified by a concentrated working of red and black over entire surfaces.

The largest wall piece presents this standard style as a red tarpaulin sprayed with short black digits, their formation 'blown' over the surface. There is a 'tribal' quality to this, and an homogeneity in the insistent, seemingly self-automated rhythms. Upon this matrix two rows of five drawings are appended with book clips. In each of the upper drawings a figure coalesces from a central gathering of digits. In the lower, the densely scumbled graphite grounds each set out a red figure in sharp relief. There is a vertiginous quality to the whole, between the crazed totalising system of the drop and the figures marshalled in front of this system. A beckoning answerability seems to emerge between differing calls to order.

What's in a name- the artist's, Jihad Muhammad John Armstrong, links a general Islamic signifier to a familial name. As a clue to energies surfacing in the work it suggests an order of ordering. Jihad (Holy War) of Muhammad- from this order we issue; John Armstrong-into this house we are born. The artist appears to have his back turned towards a prior system of order, a past in which a chain of events, perhaps of individuation, is taking place and hurtling him as Benjamin's Angelus Novus backwards into the future.1

The didacticism of the parable, Elephant in the dark, is present in many of the works. The prescriptively made surfaces, for instance, are stitched, clipped, taped, and painted with a sense of formality in their arrangements. However Armstrong's work produces a baffling cross-currency of values. At times his blazoning errs on the side of Islamic iconography, at others on an existential absurdity.

Take for example the single free-standing sculpture included in this show. Here, elements are arranged in a way that suggests a transmitting station. A densely detailed panel is inclined sharply off from the vertical, the antenna-like pole appended to its face probing the space above while its base pins the whole to a grounded cushion. A chair frame sits in front of this backward-tilting, absurdly angled construction, drawing attention to the facing detail. The close colouration of the whole binds together a surprising variety of rhythmic motifs. In describing this piece I am reminded of a hastily abandoned, mysterious piece of technology.

The speaker of the parable reserves his subject position, pontificating over the object of meaning in an autarkic enterprise. The works in the exhibition on the other hand, present a view of the internal rigours presiding over a gathering of this authority- they present the situation in which this authority may reveal itself.


1. Waiter Benjamin's interpretation of Paul Klee's painting of the same name identified the angel with face half-turned and wings outspread as facing a history in chaos which is blowing it backwards into the future