Get To Know: Conrad Armstrong, the artist fighting apathy
Conrad Armstrong is an artist whose career is flourishing.
After a recent show at the Saatchi Gallery, which was met with critical acclaim, the Hackney based artist is about to open his new exhibition at Acton's The Shotgun Studios.
Conrad was taught to paint by the brilliant Maggie Hambling, and describes Hackney Wick as his Art School. He uses every day materials to build his gigantic works of plastic, rubber, paint and canvas. Often found on Facebook putting in requests for old, broken iPhones, Conrad's work reflects on the pace and brutality of today's hyper-rapid society; something which he's been on the receiving end of countless times after being forced to vacate warehouse space after warehouse space under the tightening grip of London's swift gentrification.
Photo by Zinna Brigh Mac-Eochaidh
We caught up with him ahead of 'Echo Chamber', which opens on June 1st.
1. What inspired the name of your upcoming show?
ECHO CHAMBER is a reference to the cultural phenomenon of the Echo Chamber that has become such a vivid and defining 'thing' in this age of social media. The narrowing of our world perception through algorithms designed to allow us to only see and read what we agree with and what conforms to the narrative of the myths of ourselves. As with all my work I try and dig deeper into what I see as the 'old truths' behind anything that appears in an epoch as zeitgeist. The example sentence in the Google search dictionary definition of Echo Chamber is 'locked inside the echo chamber of his mind, he gropes for solace'. That had such a mysteriously sinister undertone to it that it really got me going further contemplating the apparently 'new' phenomena to discover it's root within our 'human nature'.
2. How would you describe your own work?
My work was described by the Art Critic Norman Rosenthal after seeing it at The Saatchi as 'Constructivist Expressionism'. This really ignited something within me that I felt a strong affiliation with... even though it doesn't really exist. Perhaps I am the first Constructivist Expressionist, I am looking for members if anyone wants to be one too, you just have to have a desire to "make concrete blush".
3. Tell us about the process behind making the work.
My practise is a constant process of destruction for rebirth, demolition for construction, destroying the image to rediscover it. An exercise in letting go. I push my work almost to the edge of 'destructivism' but without ever truly taking the plunge as I stop before the work is truly disintegrated. Through my journey along this path of playful experimentation I have discovered what seems to be a 'unique' technique of building up layers of plastic 'skins' on a frame which I then paint on and melt with fire, building the image on the rubble of itself. There is going to be a short film at the exhibition by Zinna Mac-Eochaidh that documents my process.
4. How does your exploration of social media and narcissism manifest in your work?
Jackson Pollock said that all good painters 'paint what they are', and in a way every painting in the show is a self portrait. In my own exploration of the echo chamber, I have had to look into my own echo chamber, and the many archetypes within me that make up my echo chamber, in a sense the paintings are 'selfies' of my unconcious, as I attempt the seemingly impossible task of breaking out of my own echo chamber. This is obviously a massive nod to the rampant narcissism of social media, something everyone who engages with it is guilty of, but as one of the foundations of my process is this thing of shaking off vanities and 'letting go', I have attempted to paint myself as I would never want people to see me, the opposite of social media 'selfies' that fully create the mythological being you would like the world to perceive you as.
5. What message do you think returning to society's 'old truths' gives out?
I don't think it's so much a question of returning to the old truths, it's more a question of being aware of them and attempting to understand the deeper forces behind every cycle. I am strong believer that without a sense of history it is impossible to move forward in a meaningful sense that could lead to an idea of 'progress'. With the rise of Internet we are now travelling into such uncharted territory where there are no stars to guide us. We are being asked to imagine this world and create it afresh, new rules, new interactions, new ways of being and I feel as though understanding the mechanisms of life will help us navigate the 'new world' better and help us shape the landscape in a hopefully more beautiful way. The Internet can hopefully become a far more egalitarian platform in which we can finally escape this system of Neolithic Patriarchy we have been lumped with for 1000s of years, we have to understand why to recognise the path and not just fall into the same traps again.
6. At this specific time do you find your art is more informed by the political climate, as opposed to, say, in your Saatchi show?
Haha not really. My dad was a member of the communist party, was an activist against south African apartheid and writes satirical works so I was always going to have a political side to my work, it's been an inescapable inevitability as I have been so shaped to think politically. Not that I have just subscribed to his vision, or any one vision, I have my own world view. The work at the Saatchi was a direct emotional explosion after Brexit, I feel like Brexit is denying our birth right as Europeans and I am vehemently opposed to it. It seems like a necessary evil to wake us the f$£k up and out of our apathetic slumber party, I think the Saatchi show was more of a direct emotional response to the growing tensions and divisions we are experiencing - in this country and across the world. I think the echo chamber has had time to reflect and approach some of these themes in perhaps a more controlled and considered manner, to attempt to have a conversation, instead of just screaming blood red rage - which was necessary to get out of my system and to find the head space for the much needed conversations around healing, empathy and compassion we must all have together as a people.
7. What other themes inform your work?
A big theme that I will forever keep close is the conflict between nature and 'civilisation', the battle between the concrete jungle and the ancient forest. I guess this goes back to the seeking of 'old truths', for instance the deeper you go back towards mother earth the easier it is to unravel some of the more oppressive myths and narratives perpetuated by religions and governments.
The study of the human form is also very important to me.
8. Tell me more about the Vicious Collective.
Vicious Collective is a very loose arts collective that is very open and embracing to all who are willing to operate outside of the mainstream. We have a monthly evening called Sunday Service at our HQ and my studio in Hackney Wick on every first Sunday of the month where people come together and share with each other, some entertain, some move, some shock, some experiment and some just need it as therapy. I believe in the collective, and the collective experience, being an artist can be a very solitary and selfish existence sometimes and it feels good to come together and have a strong community around you. Give something back and champion the underdog or give platform to those who will inspire. This is where ART happens for me, this is my Art School. If we all help each other we can achieve great things.
9. Finish the sentence: Art has the power to... be more than just a decorative product in a cold and empty capitalist system, many seem to be forgetting that.
ECHO CHAMBER Opens Thursday 1st June, 6pm - 10pm
37 Churchfield Road
The exhibition is on until 15th July 2017.
LINK TO ARTICLE