Inside, there are only two rooms open to the public showing work by Hany Armanious. The one on the lower level houses one work, on the right-hand wall. It’s made of carpet – ‘cheap, generic, nylon, think shopping centre’, I’m told by the attendant – stretched over canvas, and must be 2 metres wide and almost as high. Printed over the huge expanse are the drawings of an infant; more precisely, the scribbles of Armanious’ four year old son. I’m told that work on this series is necessarily coming to a close, as the little boy’s projects become more sophisticated. To have caught his development at this stage – however fleeting it might have been – is truly charming. To memorialise, re-contextualise, and present it on an enormous scale in a gallery setting is philosophically interesting.
Hany Armanious at Southard Reid Gallery
Printed over the huge expanse are the drawings of an infant; more precisely, the scribbles of Armanious’ four year old son.
Southard Reid Gallery is hidden in a little mews, which you’d walk past if you didn’t know what you were looking for. It doesn’t have a sign so much as a label underneath a domestic doorbell, and it’s part of a wall of terraced houses, which form the back of something like a square off the main road. I’ve found a guide in the form of Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon Gallery, and he strolls to the front door as though it’s the one he returns to every evening. Backstreet galleries of London are something of a specialist subject for him.
For Armanious, medium and context are crucial. Arguably, these aspects constitute the ‘art’ in his work, both conceptually and formally speaking. He’s especially famous for his resin casts of everything from tables to sand, which constitute exquisitely accurate facsimiles, necessarily functionless. The art world has long come to terms with ‘found objects’ displayed side-by-side with more traditional artforms like paintings and sculpture. When found objects are derided, it is often with the argument that no skill or effort was needed to produce them. The artist and the artisan are becoming further divorced than ever, since signatures and ideas of the genius began to disrupt the uniform produce of medieval craftsmen, when artist and artisan were one and the same.
Armanious’ work is so subversive, and so satisfyingly neat in its concept, because of its ostensible adherence to one strand of debate – the ‘pro-readymade’ – coupled with its faithfulness to an older school of work which demands rigour, precision and skill. It forces each camp to reconsider what they value, what they consider to be art, and how effort configures itself in respect to beauty: philosophical and physical.
Upstairs at Southard Reid, Armanious has followed this line of thought to arrive at a conclusion which adds another dimension to the equation; impermanence, temporality. One series comprises a set of Blu Tack blobs, painstakingly cast in his trademark resin, complete with thumb prints and all the signs of having been manipulated and rolled between fingers which have left their mark.
The immediacy, and humanity, of this gesture is both underlined and undermined by its transposition to a medium other than its original.
The immediacy, and humanity, of this gesture is both underlined and undermined by its transposition to a medium other than its original. Displayed alongside the Blu Tack is (a sculpture of) a group of candles burnt down to varying degrees. Temporality and mundanity are centre-stage again, as is the visual paradox of recent human intervention – now with a match, before with a thumb.
The detail in the models is somehow heart-rending, perhaps because all the effort gone into their creation has only frustrated the objects’ potential. These are only sculptures, after all: in using the original objects to make art, Armanious has stripped them of all utility. However, he has gifted something too. These pieces – a child’s scribbling, domestic ephemera – have been assigned all the weight of a masterpiece, as well as the labour. Armanious asks fundamental questions about art. What do we see? What do we make? What do we love?