Benjamin Armstrong, Nicholas Mangan, Jon Campbell


Somewhere between 'it's gonna take a lotta love' and 'blah blah blah'—pronouncements made by Jon Campbell in his trademark enamel flash and verve—lies the spectrum of collective inspiration, stocktaking and analysis required to produce an artist’s book in a marketplace that is at best receptive and at worst utterly indifferent to the book as present day promotional item with a view to posterity. Artists’ books of the kind commercially published in Australia are inevitably limited in number, reach of distribution, and, it follows, appreciation. By the time a common print run of 500 copies is in the hands of an artist’s network of friends, collectors, industry insiders and the shelves of libraries and urban indie booksellers, the often ill-informed expectation of happily stumbling on the book in, say, Manila, Minneapolis or Milan is bound to be disproportionate to the workings of global book distribution. Amazon simply doesn’t easily cater for localised publishing concerns; the difficult lesson being that readerships are essentially cultivated as a result of prolonged in-the-flesh engagement.

For this reason, at the relatively young age of thirty-five Benjamin Armstrong can be proud to have a modestly beautiful monograph that presents his drawings, sculptures and prints of the past decade. By giving reproductions of the work pre-eminence, Holding a Thread offers the basics of textual contributions: a brief, generously typeset introduction by Juliana Engberg that doesn’t seek to explain, but rather—as per the author’s title—‘insinuate’ aspects of the work, while a conversation with Charlotte Day presents the artist’s voice. For Engberg, ‘Ben’s works are anti-gestalt things’ whose ‘oculi eggs’ and ‘ocular doodles’ underline a culture familiar with the theories of observation. The drawings are particularly mysterious and wonderful, their inky wells and half-tones setting off uncanny associations in ways that Armstrong’s print works do not. Published by new Sydney outfit Emblem Books, this is the inaugural book in a list that promises adventurous co-pub opportunities and eclectic subjects in the future.

Designed by the artist with Warren Taylor, Nicholas Mangan’s Notes From a Cretaceous World, in its clothbound, largely monochromatic form, stands as an interesting addendum to Mangan’s sculptural, installation and video work concerned with the interrelated ambiguities of capitalist commodities, political expediencies and cultural forms. Thumbnails of historical, anthropological and geological import contextualise the artist’s concerns—a De Beers diamond mine, Fijian wooden fork-and-spoon souvenirs, termite damage to a Japanese temple—while colour is reserved for a dozen pages of Mangan’s work. While Geraldine Barlow’s introduction is encumbered by platitudinous generalities (‘Nicholas Mangan pays attention; he is curious and seeks knowledge. Mangan listens’), Shelley McSpedden’s text, adapted from a Monash University research thesis, is an accomplished analysis of the complex methodologies and meanings articulated by Mangan’s practice.

It’s satisfying to see Jon Campbell accorded the appreciation of a monograph befitting the idiosyncrasies of his practice. Published by Uplands, Campbell’s gallery in Melbourne, and edited by its Director Jarrod Rawlins with Lisa Radford, Jon Campbell is an immediately seductive thing of beauty. A jellybean-jar spine of paint leads the eye to the plywood reverse of a painting simply titled Book used to frame the back cover of the book, while heavy matt stock fleshes out a judicious selection of three decades of work. The text is a team effort, conceived by the editors as personal and personable reflections on ‘JC’ as student, muso, songwriter, teacher and artist, and are refreshingly genuine and honest in their appraisals: ‘None of the theories, the clever dick methodologies, or the smarty pants quotes bear any great relationship to how he thinks and works.’ It’s encouraging, too, to see Campbell’s influence as a teacher acknowledged. Emerging artists and publishers alike would do well to be guided by the principle picked up by the students of Campbell: ‘Not a motive, only motivation.'

Juliana Engberg and Charlotte Day, Benjamin Armstrong: Holding a Thread, Emblem Books, Sydney, in association with Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 2010, hardcover, 140 pp.

Geraldine Barlow and Shelley McSpedden, Nicholas Mangan: Notes From a Cretaceous World, The Narrows in association with Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2010, hardcover, 88 pp.

Lisa Radford and Jarrod Rawlins (eds), Jon Campbell, Uplands Publishing, Melbourne, 2010, softcover, 195 pp.

Published in Art & Australia, vol. 48 no. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 356-357.

© Pedro de Almeida 2010.