The first time I visited Justin Armstrong’s studio at Alexander Hall, he was standing on top of a pile of Mel Gibson photos and Monopoly money with a giant grin on his face. The hallways were clogged with people, but despite his urging that it wasn’t an installation – “Hi! I’m Justin! Do you want to walk on Mel Gibson?” – few crossed his threshold.
If they had, they would’ve seen the gigantic bags of potting mix, the Legos, the macaroni and cheese duct tape, the post-it notes covered in alternating Heidegger quotes and thoughts about zombies, and the selection of mops under his work bench.
They would’ve wondered what the hell was going on.
It was enough to convince me that there should be a second visit.
When I come back for our formal studio visit a month later, there’s another tarp covering the studio floor – this time covered in neon footprints. Armstrong is standing inside the space, waiting for me to come in, but the tarp still looks sticky with paint. When I step inside and hear the tacky sound of my shoes catching the tarp, I asked if I’m ruining his artwork.
“It wouldn’t bother me if it changed or if someone else changed it. It’s pseudo-performative,” he says. He’s grinning again, as if satisfied that he’s made a very silly joke that just went over my head. He’s not totally wrong.
That’s why I’m here. I’ve seen the experimental works Armstrong is exhibiting on the walls outside his studio; I’ve seen his unique brand of formalism and I’m here to get the story behind it. There’s joy, sophistication and humor in his work. I want to know what’s made him different – I want to know why Mel Gibson was all over his floor.
“I’m from Leeds, Alabama, which is 20 miles outside Birmingham,” Armstrong tells me. “There’s zero art community. I didn’t know anything about art. I just grew up doing portraiture and drawing copies of video game characters and stuff. I thought realism was what art was and I thought Thomas Kincade was the pinnacle of art.
Every progressive year [at SCAD] has been wake up call after wake up call after wake up call. Like, oh my god, Thomas Kincade is absolutely not the pinnacle of art.”
For Armstrong, those wake up calls came from his Art History classes (where Duchamp’s “Fountain” first introduced him to conceptual art–“When you decontextualize something in an art context it kind of breaks it,” he explains) and his own readings into contemporary philosophy, specifically Heidegger and Graham Harman.
He became fascinated with object-oriented ontology, a school of thought which places objects at the center of the study of existence. Object-oriented ontology proposes that everything exists equally – thoughts, the Internet, dogs, slabs of marble, wildflower seeds, and paint, for example. If we follow this concept, human thought and experience is not at the center of philosophy and objects can’t (and shouldn’t) be understood by how they exist to us.
Armstrong’s paintings echo these interests in an incredibly human way – he has plenty of questions, knows he doesn’t have the answers, and manages to laugh about it.
“My reading on aesthetics and philosophy has caused me to make all these different things,” he says. “I work on tarps, I work on For Sale signs, I use collage elements that kind of don’t go together. It’s not because I even have the answers to why I do all of it. It’s because I want to know what would happen if I put two different things together. It’s made me more creative, it’s made me more willing to take risks with materials.”
His interest in Harman’s work – the belief that all objects can be democratized – has directly led Armstrong to experiment and incorporate non-traditional materials and methods into his artwork. “I put everything on an even playing field,” he tells me.
So where does the non-traditional painter find his non-traditional paints?
“Oh my god, I love Home Depot. Home Depot is amazing,” Armstrong practically shouts, throwing his hands in the air. There’s that grin again, but this time it’s contagious.
“I go in there and I walk by something and I’m like “What can I do with this? What can I do with that? What can happen with this?” Take potting mix for example. I could use it by itself, but most of it would fall off [the canvas] and it’d be smears and I don’t want that. So at the same time I buy house paint. You paint your house, you don’t paint the dirt. The house is on the dirt and so now it’s like re-contextualizing something in an art context. Then I have to think “Oh god, what will happen to that? That’ll probably rot. But that could be good?” And then I think, “That could be what needs to happen. There’s an element of failure in some of my pieces.”
All of this flies out of his mouth at lightning speed – a real-time, un-edited example of his artistic process. But the explanation almost isn’t necessary. It’s already all over the walls of his studio.
A huge linen canvas leans up against the wall across from us, its smooth, un-gessoed surface broken up only by a rectangular inset painting of an ocean wave and an enormous sun made of macaroni and cheese duct tape – it’s a testament to his willingness to experiment, his joy in his materials and his genuine sense of humor.
We walk down the hallway outside his studio to visit more works – a For Sale sign collaged with another Mel Gibson photo, a small panel speckled in silver spray paint so that it looks like a frieze of the moon’s surface, a decoupaged panel that Armstrong has gouged at with the end of a hammer until pops of Monopoly money show through.
He knows how to be more subtle too. Two white panels around the corner from his studio stand out for their incorporation of clear, gel medium, into which Armstrong has pressed his india inked-fingerprint. The print swirls into the gel medium, leaving ethereal shapes behind like little ghosts. Paint splatter printed duct tape cuts across the picture plane with a cleverness that is both bold and maturely edited.
As we walk and talk, he keeps reaching out and touching his work – poking at it, adjusting it on the wall, and dragging his finger across its surfaces as he explains. For Armstrong, the art object is both beloved and ordinary, elevated and accessible at the same time.