‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’ This famous quote by John Cage came to mind as I walked through John Armleder’s solo exhibition at Galerie Andrea Caratsch in Zurich. A student of Fluxus in Geneva in the 1960s, a noted devotee of Cage, and an artist who never met a pattern he didn’t like or a formal idea he didn’t want to repeat to Zen-punk infinity, Armleder has, over the course of his celebrated, 40-year career, made his name on reiterating works that transmit the same kind of experimental savant cheerfulness captured in Cage’s work.
Nevertheless, considering that Armleder’s last show at the gallery in 2009, ‘John Armleder: New Paintings’, simply held over the previous exhibition of Olivier Mosset’s own paintings, this new body of work feels straightforward in the extreme. For one, they are made by Armleder himself, or at least his assistants (all brightly thanked in the press release). Two, the décor-like installation of mirrors-as-monochromes, pattern-strewn wallpapers, geometric paintings, guitars and skulls, are admittedly familiar from the artist’s past productions, which borrow gladly from Suprematism, Dada, Concrete Art, Op, Minimalism and Pop, among other movements. Here, as elsewhere, Armleder marries pure formalism and geometric abstraction – with its implication of singular authorship – to the hyper-performative multitasking of Fluxus, with its connotations of collaboration, participation and community.
Thus the opening gallery discloses Nestor (all works 2011), an egg-shaped LED screen that might be a monochrome if it weren’t slowly lighting up and down and blasting the large painting opposite it – The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon, featuring a pattern of an innocuous, green, clover-like insignia – with light and shadow. The next room presents a wallpaper bearing a pattern of a headless clown-like figure, perhaps a certain White Rabbit, which is replicated as a beautiful glass sculpture revealingly called I’m Late, I’m Late, I’m Running for a Date (also the title of the show) positioned atop a pedestal. On the pedestal next to it is a golden crown of thorns called Illico, lit so that a shadow twins it like a halo. In light of Armleder’s recent health scares – which I only bring up here as they are also discussed in the show’s press release – the gold crown and the titular glass object take on darker, more mortal properties. Headlessness, mindlessness, the thorns as the fall of Christ and man, the White Rabbit’s words from Alice in Wonderland: it’s all quite heavy – the rabbit’s complete line goes, of course: ‘I’m late / I’m late / For a very important date. / No time to say “Hello.” / Goodbye.’ And yet it’s not. Because this is Armleder, after all, and concerns with mortality have not quite relegated his primary issues of painting and display to the sidelines.
See the last and finest room, with its three fantastic, seemingly minimalist paintings of pale, silvery grounds affixed with glittery horizontal or vertical stripes (Simone, Rocco and Siro). The stripes reveal themselves to be anti-pigeon fences gilded with gold or chrome, which jut off the canvas like Gego paintings, throwing gorgeous, spindly shadows. Across the room, Ilion (FS) takes over one long wall. Its four paintings touch shoulders, each delineating deft and delicate repetitions of oval-like shapes, while a mirrored bookcase stuck between them discloses skulls in various stones – the turquoise being my favourite. If at this point skulls have simply too many art-historical ramifications to tie them to the grapples with mortality raised in the previous room, the artist seems to know this. As he said in a recent interview, ‘When you use a form that is already known for something, you should take advantage of the fact that it’s already known.’
Which brings us to the reflexive and self-critical ideas imbuing his practice, in which skulls function as ‘skulls’, paintings as décor and as paintings, and exhibitions as exhibitions. (It is almost as if there were a decorous girl from a game show, swanning her arms and curtsying behind each work: ‘And in this room we have the art.’) All the works here – including the blinged-out guitars with mother-of-pearl inlay hanging above a stripy red canvas – give off the feeling and function of stage design, of décor, of the great set-up. The works are waiting, with you, the spectator, for the performers to step on stage and begin. That you might be that performer is a bit of a letdown, but this responsibility is also sweet and a bit scary. If Armleder’s showing sounds cynical and institutional critique-ish, it’s really not. His success hinges on, among other things, a body of work threaded through with humour, wonder and joy, but also intelligence, seriousness and a decided bit of darkness.