Grafting the Baroque: The Scaled-Up Frames of David Armstrong Six

David Armstrong Six, "Night School," 2019. Courtesy the artist, Darling Foundry, and Parisian Laundry.
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“Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?”

– Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

It was an unlikely win that David Armstrong Six and I conducted our walkthrough of his recent exhibition over a video call. I had already visited the work, installed at Montreal’s Darling Foundry. But this second viewing, via patchy wifi and a moving frame (variously capturing the artist’s ear and nose, his spiralled tunnels, a spider perched atop a sculpture, windblown drawings, and so much glinting light), seemed to mirror the piecemeal and fractal quality of the work itself. As he darted us through an expansive gallery peopled by sculptural forms, and around the installation’s larger scenography, Armstrong Six emphasized that Night School was one whole made out of so many wholes. He then shyly exited the show as visitors began to arrive, moving our conversation into the cavernous, raw interstices of the historic artist residency that the Foundry houses. It, too, felt like an appropriate setting for a conversation that touched on various influences, from urban Roman ruins to the liminal moments in Bernini’s sculptures and the psychic tensions of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. These corridors provided an outside – a place to receive the artist’s projected mappings and fond figurative associations, and to contemplate their success.

David Armstrong Six, “Night School,” 2019. Courtesy the artist, Darling Foundry, and Parisian Laundry.

Night School features a group of sculptures that crouch low to the floor, their appearance craggy and organic, but their figuration also self-possessed. A second population of “slim vegetal and animal forms, made of wood,” populate the space, and all around them, like a set designed for various view-finding perspectives, polished half-cylinders loom, reminiscent of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976), or fashioned after a Minimalist grotto. These structures also suggest a partial container for the manifold patchwork references within this swarming show, a frame that signals the unreliability of framing itself.

In speaking about his work, Armstrong Six is erudite, perspicacious, and expatiating. He navigates personal experience, pop culture, and critical theory with momentum and humor. He seems to pack so much into the work – each piece bearing several associated or anthropomorphized meanings – that instead of directing your reading, he throws you an entire book. In his multivalent associating there is something of Gilles Deleuze’s “soul as a monda – an individual unit ‘that contains the entire universe as an infinitely folded space’.” Each sculpture wears several robes, which Armstrong Six fingers impatiently. The title, Night School, calls forth a pedagogical system, with its attendant hierarchies (though, Armstrong Six clarifies, it’s most certainly a free university).  A plinth-hoisted sculpture designated “the teacher” instructs his various graduate students, a ragtag team of slightly-less-commanding forms all pointed in his direction. Each one has a character trait assigned to him, and each bears the name of a 19th-century samurai, because “the samurai embodies potential,” Armstrong Six explains; “he is poised to become.”

David Armstrong Six, “Graduate: Saitō,” 2019.

Amid this scene are seemingly discordant figures like so much cultural detritus, and some organic ones, as well. We see the repeating form of a ceramic leech, which Armstrong Six saw depicted in Roman churches. The leech – already an erotic form for its amorphousness – is historically heralded for its 32 sections (“each with its own brain”) and their autosexuality. Here, however, the slugs’ sensuality is just another light flashing among abandoned or half-formed signals: cast-away Chinese lettering, abstract ceramic patterns bearing the imprint of sneaker soles, and other quotidian observations spanning ruin and monument. Put together, Night School fans a post-apocalyptic array of remainders, from Grecian school days to end-time space shuttles. What little plasmic material breaks through – leeches, peanuts – suggests both an endurance and a timelessness, and cuts the dystopic tension with a colloquial wit.

Synthesizing this coded debris are several tunnels which, due to their design’s controlled and monumental sweep, demonstrate a successful scaling-up for the artist. Armstrong Six keeps the eye where it needs to be (a rare achievement in the Foundry’s famously challenging exhibition space, whose industrial ceiling and light-filled clerestory often pull at one’s focus). The dynamism of the installation helps contain the pinging narratives of its modular pieces, and adopts the fluctuating structure of the baroque. And in this encircled multitude is Armstrong Six’s larger comment about the impermanency of any frame.

David Armstrong Six, “Night School,” 2019. Courtesy the artist, Darling Foundry, and Parisian Laundry.

Night School presents a schema that is inevitably deferred, and in this way, his earlier reference to the tendon-like spaces in Bernini sculptures proves a perfect citation. Famously an artist of heroic form and romantic gesture, Bernini was also a master of the fold, his attention to the place-between – lapping clothing and descending flesh – delivering us to a shifting site. Armstrong Six frames his work in terms of this placelessness, rooting his baroque in the experience of viewing sculpture, which “defies the single grasp of an image,” and insists on our circling and piecemeal comprehension. Similarly, Armstrong Six seems to be grafting the baroque – as quality, more than movement – onto his multifarious forms in an effort to embrace the eliding, elusive effort of figurative association. He lands us in a spinning passageway, a temporal loop, a place of infinitudes that flags an impossible whole.

David Armstrong Six, “Night School,” 2019. Courtesy the artist, Darling Foundry, and Parisian Laundry.

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