Venturing to the outskirts of East London, I enter one of the many warehouse complexes that occupy what was previously an industrially dominated area on the city's periphery. Now a hub of creative activity, it is currently home to a larger concentration artists' studios than any other area in Europe. It is here that I have come to visit multidisciplinary artist Conrad Armstrong, prior to his new exhibition, "SHADOW PROGRESS". The show is one segment of a greater body of work surrounding the theme of progress, beginning with his last collection of work, "INTO THE FOREST." This previous show explored themes of industrialization, highlighting our basic connection and reliance upon nature via an exploration of British history, its land and trees.
In "SHADOW PROGRESS," he revisits these themes in a specifically urban environment, exploring the the paradox between society's desire for a sense of community and our notions of modern "progress". Through the use of urban building materials and the theme of shadows, Armstrong's work reveals the irony of these industrial practices, ones that often fragment and destroy these social spaces.
Armstrong himself is a Londoner through and through, and his engagement with the city's development derives from his own personal experience of the effects of modern industrialization. Born and raised in Streatham, once a rough area of south London, he has experienced first hand the positive effects of urban gentrification. Nevertheless, he states that "such is the commercial machine, that people see the investment opportunities and then take that model and abuse it." This is something that has deeply affected him during his career as an artist. "I've had 5 houses and studios knocked down by way of building larger, more unaffordable spaces." His current residency has a maximum of 2 years left before it is demolished to make way for new developments.
"When you are constantly being destroyed and moved on, you get this feeling that you are in the shadows, in the peripheries," says Armstrong. Shadows become an allusion to his own experiences of being pushed to the outskirts of the city. He aligns his artistic community with London's refugees, whose homes are similarly being demolished to make way for the tidal wave of "new builds". In one of his video works, he employs the metaphor of the rocking horse, an object "in constant motion, but making no progress," highlighting the banality of this insatiable appetite for urban development.
Despite its darkness, Armstrong's work resists the confines of pessimism due to his evident love of his city and the inspiration offered by the urban environment. Conrad says he finds the city a meditative space, as reflected in one of his works; an urban zen garden comprising a large solitaire board made up of 32 cast concrete eggs, alongside ash and bones; found objects collected from the riverbed of the Thames.
Despite its British core, Armstrong was clearly influenced by a 5-week visit to Japan last year, a trip which was the culmination of many years of interest in Japanese culture and the monochrome aesthetics of Akira Kurosawa films. "In Japan there is a book In Praise of Shadows," Armstrong tells me. "Whereas in Western culture, we light a room to eradicate all shadow, they encourage a space whereby shadows are a thing of depth and beauty." In a similar vein, Armstrong explains that although the black paintings might convey doom and gloom, rather they are rich and mysterious.
The show's largest work acts as a meditation on these feelings. Itself a model of destruction, Armstrong created the gigantic assemblage using pieces of industrial plywood, which he burned and destroyed multiple times, reassembling them and inlaying them with ash and iron supports to create a new object. He cites Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and Ai Wei Wei's destroyed Ming vases as references, questioning the idea of creative progress via the process of deconstruction and reassembly.
This physical engagement with his media is also reflected in the thick black oil paint used for the painted works. "Pushing around the paint allows me to discover what I am trying to express within it," he explains. In this case the expression manifests as an inky rendering of the London cityscape, executed in glossy black oil paint, as copied from sketches he took out in the city.
In Armstrong's work, shadows operate this duality. Two of the most striking works appear as black boxes, each bearing a white etched drawing of the London cityscape, similar to that of the black oil painting. Flicking a switch, the boxes come alive, lit from the inside, illuminating the previously faint hatchings in all their minute detail. Although the city may be dark, the energy of the history and community that lie at its core illuminate it with inextinguishable brilliance.
Thus although a melancholic look at the bulldozing of community by way of industrial "progress", "SHADOW PROGRESS" is also a love affair with the city. In the shadows we find both the darkness and the beauty of London in all its rich social, industrial and artistic history. By its nature it is a city characterized by progress, the hallmarks of which are questioned and explored in Armstrong's fascinating new collection of work.
"SHADOW PROGRESS" opens May 5 at Unit G Gallery, 12A Collent Street E9 6SG
All images by Issy Croker