Dairy Art Centre celebrates its opening with a tribute to the Swiss artist John M Armleder (Geneva, 1948; lives and works in Geneva), by staging his largest ever solo exhibition in the UK. The exhibition, curated by Alessandro Rabottini, presents a vast array of different media, and alternates works made specifically for the occasion such as Y Raid, with those from the collections of Dairy Art Centre founders Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm.
John M Armleder has been a key figure on the contemporary art scene since the early 1970s and, despite the fact that critics, younger artists and the broader art context have widely acknowledged his influence, he remains a difficult figure to define or classify within a movement. From the very beginning of his career, his research was inspired by the Fluxus movement – and the creation of the Groupe Ecart in Geneva in the late 1960s – through which Armleder has developed a generous and diverse artistic production. He has explored an array of subjects and media, from painting to installation and from performance to assemblage, as well as publishing and multiples. His art is a celebration of reality in its everyday and even most commonplace manifestations.
Among the numerous wall paintings in the exhibition space there are pictorial works from different cycles that characterise Armleder’s production. The 'Pour Paintings' are made by pouring paint down a vertical canvas, exploiting gravity as a creative force, whilst the 'Puddle Paintings', created by pouring a variety of fluids on canvases laid horizontally on the floor, are the result of the chemical reaction between different materials like varnishes and paint. There are also paintings that are structured on the serial repetition of a motif – for instance an ink blot, a stylised flower, an insect – that explore the act of painting as a mechanical action. The pattern paintings question not only the tradition of geometric abstraction but, above all, the convergence of the applied arts, decoration and the avant-garde culture promoted by movements such as Arts and Crafts and the Bauhaus. In effect, Armleder’s work probes the concept of tradition but also its subversion; it celebrates art history and the avant-garde at the very moment in which it pushes both to react with everyday life and pop culture.
'Global Tiki' (1998–2000) is another example of this strategy of blending and hybridisation. The installation is composed of twelve discotheque balls that immerse the spectator in a setting characterised by a stratification of visual stimuli that overlap with each other: the wall decorations, the surfaces of the paintings and the movement of lights. At the same time, the works made with neon lights – also shown in a room designed by the artist with the intervention of wall decorations – revive the minimalist tradition of employing readymade industrial materials, just as Dan Flavin did. Thus Armleder creates a short circuit between the cultured reference to Op Art and the interplay of hypnotic lights that characterise consumer and recreational venues such as clubs and shopping centres.
Armleder’s work thrives within the tension between avant-garde culture and pop culture, blurring the boundaries between them. This is witnessed by the multimedia installation in the Dairy Art Centre's space known as the Fridge. Within this installation we find a variety of sound and video pieces: segments of B-movies, films and videos made by the Groupe Ecart in the 1960s, documentation of happenings and performances, musical scores and optical experiments are presented in an accumulation of audio-visual information and without any hierarchical distinctions. This impressive installation clarifies a key aspect of Armleder’s work: the strategy of accumulation, of the joyous cohabitation of different things as a paean to the multiplicity of the forms of human existence, a celebration of the coexistence and equivalence of values through the principle of quantity. On these warehouse shelves the artist has stacked faux and real flowers, stuffed animals, his works in multiples and various other materials, creating a landscape where natural and artificial, original and copy, coexist.
With this horizontal presentation of things, Armleder creates a hybrid structure that synthesises different experiences tied to the concepts of display, classification, knowledge and desire. The act of “showing” calls to mind the Renaissance concept of Wunderkammer and classifying museum-like displays – above all those of natural science museums – also the accumulation of consumer goods in the show of commodities, thus creating an ambiguity between erudition and consumerism, classical and pop culture, and uniqueness and mass production. The perishable nature of flowers and the presence of stuffed animals also generate an evocative element, in this case tied to the fragility of human life, somehow recalling the tradition of still life (above all eighteenth-century Dutch works) as memento mori, a moral allegory on the transience of life.
Creating a bridge between Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and the pop art of Andy Warhol, Armleder’s work shuffles things around and brings both historical precedents to a new level of understanding and provocation, leading the intellectualism of the former and the latter’s love for ordinary objects to the most extreme consequences. Raw materials are also shown as piles, deploying again the strategy of accumulation to create a landscape of natural, artificial and construction materials. The very simple idea of showing “things as they are” clarifies, once more, the power of art to turn the banal into something extraordinary: by means of accumulation we discover raw materials as colours, patterns, textures and elements of rhythmic compositions.
John M Armleder has had solo exhibitions at prestigious public institutions such as Tate Liverpool; Kunstverein Hannover; MAMCO, Geneva; Kunsthalle Zürich; Casino Luxembourg; Le Consortium, Dijon; Secession, Vienna; Villa Arson, Nice; Kunstverein Düsseldorf; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Kunstmuseum Basel and GAMeC in Bergamo. In addition to representing Switzerland at the 1986 Venice Biennale, the artist participated in Documenta 8 the following year. His works have been shown in group exhibitions at MoMA New York; Le Centre Pompidou, Paris; Punta della Dogana/Palazzo Grassi, Venice; Kunstmuseum St. Gallen; CAM, St. Louis; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; CAPC, Bordeaux; Kunsthalle Wien; Museum Ludwig, Cologne Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel.