For the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire, Benjamin Armstrong exhibits a series of new works, displayed on custom-made plinths at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Often employing wax and glass in his sculptural works, Armstrong draws on disparate stylistic influences, ranging from 2000-year-old Egyptian portraits to Pukumani burial poles from Australia’s remote Tiwi Islands. Deeply engaged with the physical act of making, Armstrong’s sculptures explore the everyday while also evoking elements of the surreal and the grotesque, resulting in objects that can concurrently seduce and repel.
The solid shapes, heads and torsos of these new pieces have a deliberate denseness and tangible tactility that distinguishes them from the delicate forms of previous works. Yet, despite their bulky, material solidity, they offer an enigmatic subject for the viewer’s contemplation. Allusions to early modernism abound. Armstrong’s surrealism, which was previously in dialogue with the juxtaposed objects of artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti, now finds a further link to their use of masks and figures, as well as to those of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Constantin Brâncuși and Amedeo Modigliani. Like these artists, Armstrong’s latest pieces look to a kind of primitivism, which is reinforced by the stylisation and basic delineations of his modelling.
Armstrong has firmly lodged his work in the territory of the sexually suggestive, corporeal, metaphoric object. Conjurers (2012) resembles giant root systems, plucked from the earth and relocated to the interior of the gallery. With tendrilled heads and fibrous bodies, they take on an anthropomorphic presence. Other works, such as MG (2012), incorporate varied colours and shapes that seem to ooze inside their bulbous glass forms. Armstrong continually brings our attention back to the body, its capacity to relate to the inanimate, and the role that art can play in this union. So, too, eyes, and the physical act of viewing, are important aspects of Armstrong’s oeuvre. Eyes represent clairvoyance, spirituality and omniscience – they speak to the soul of the object.
Armstrong has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne. His work has been the subject of several solo exhibitions, including ‘Conjurers’, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne (2012); ‘Hold Everything Dear’, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (2009); and ‘Sorcery’, Studio 12, Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne (2008). He has also participated in numerous national and international group exhibitions, among them ‘Melbourne Now’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2013–14); 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012); Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (2010); and ‘Still Vast Reserves’, Magazzino d’Arte Moderna, Rome (2009). His work is held in several significant collections at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; and the British Museum, London. In 2011, Armstrong was awarded an Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship.