Eve Armstrong

The joke about Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) being a Power Point presentation rather than a documentary may only begin to fathom the crudeness of the aesthetic strategies—or complicity with boardroom vocabulary—required to precipitate what he calls a political “tipping point on climate change.” And yet, at the same time, audiences for contemporary art are likely already inured to pleas for the urgency of acting to avoid impending ecological catastrophe. What kind of meaningful intervention is left, then, to an individual artist—especially one not funded at the level of the Alliance for Climate Protection—whose work deals with issues such as the fate of waste?

Eve Armstrong, for one, has consistently engaged with the idea of recycling, responding first to the colors and forms that have shown up on local curbsides in the wake of civic initiatives—the browns of sheaves of compacted cardboard boxes left out for collection and the bright bulges of plastic rubbish bags—through photographs and installations. Earlier works include Backdrop, 2006, a billboard at the Scape Biennial in Christchurch advertising an abstraction from such trash, and her social sculpture The Trading Table, 2003 (reenacted for the Auckland Triennial in March and April of 2007), which set up an exchange of goods and services between audience members in public spaces, personally facilitated by the artist. Her most recent gallery show steadfastly continued this inquiry.

The dozen pieces in “Dressed & Shaken” were distinct salable items, a series of assemblages of the found materials that Armstrong has used throughout her career. Although not indexed to any specific source, these sculptures made their commercial home here further self-reflexive by sampling the material culture of office space, a fact emphasized by titles that play on business terms: Cutbacks (all works 2007), for example, takes some disused shelving backboards, with a ready-made storeroom sheen of gray grime, and leans them against a metal shelving unit. Clearout poetically balances an inflated trash bag on the empty wire frame of a storage rack. These components might once have been selected from a supplies catalogue, ordered by code number, and delivered by courier. Armstrong’s treatment of them, similar to those of many contemporary sculptors working with cheap or degraded found materials, is strongly formalist, a kind of ikebana, discovering beauty in the discarded (Holding Pattern employs the spongy green foam, trademarked under the name Oasis, that flower arrangers use to fix the positions of stems in a vase)—but also unflinchingly literal, leaving these items just as they are so that they continue to refer back to the wider world (the dark-blue plastic storage crate of Box File, still labeled by a warehouse sticker, holds ring-binder dividers in a chalky spectrum of greens and browns). The recent obsolescence of these objects is due to their shared look—their departure from that thin band of design style that signals the neutral and contemporary, and therefore trustworthy and successful, in the mainstream of first-world commerce; by reversing it, Armstrong subtly reveals an aesthetic logic to the way depreciation outstrips practical function.

Jon Bywater