John Armstrong
Paul Collins

Lakeshore  (2002-07)
oil on chromogenic print
20 x 30 inches (50.8 x 76.3 cm)

By blue Ontario’s shore,
As I mused of these warlike days and of peace return’d,
and the dead that return no more,
I listened to the Phantom by Ontario’s shore,
I heard the voice arising demanding bards.

Underneath the lessons of things, spirits, Nature, governments, ownership,
I swear I perceive other lessons.

Walt Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, 1856

installation view, Galerie ESCA, Nîmes, France, 2006→

Click to enlarge images↓→

The idea of a lakeshore as a poetic space of transition is an established genre in romantic art — and in Canadian painting in particular — evoking travel and the natural world. In our ongoing series Lakeshore (2002-07), we recall and temper this genre by painting images and texts on large-scale colour photographs. Although some of these images depict actual lakeshores, most have to do with our routine comings and goings, artistic and quotidian. We take these photographs principally in Canada and France while commuting, shopping and working in our studios, as well as on our travels elsewhere. Our photographs tend to the banal, while some are romantic in the way the everyday can be romantic.

We paint on top of our photographs in oils, with marked impasto; the paint’s physical presence and materiality contrasts with the pronounced glossy surface of the image. The photograph is no longer a seamless window onto reality, but serves as the painting’s ground. The painted images are of glasses, pails and other water containers – domestic objects that allow for the inclusion of contained bodies of water in Lakeshore. These assorted vessels are either painted from observation in the manner of a traditional still-life painting or copied from illustrations. Like the vessels, the words are painted directly on the photograph with attendant hesitancies, corrections and distortions.

Our painted texts, which we think of as concrete poetry, are either written by us or are idiomatic expressions, phrases chosen from popular culture and advertising, or references to art history — predominantly in English or French. The words do not serve as captions for the painted or photographic images, but further our exploration of an expanded definition of lakeshore. These texts upend the traditional role that captions play — that of directing the viewer to a specific message conveyed by a photograph or illustration. They are painted in a variety of colours and typefaces in order to inflect the words themselves and to interact with the motifs and colour of the underlying photograph. In some cases, the typography is derived from a brandname or advertising layout.

Our painted photographs bring to mind both the inclusion of painted text in art — from renaissance annunciations to cubist still lifes , pop art and beyond — as well as the ubiquity of advertising in the contemporary environment that invariably uses text in combination with photography. Unlike commercial signage’s clearly denotative purpose, our painted words and images set out to create a resonance with the photograph that is poetic, absurd and, at times, editorial. Our three elements — photographic image, painted text and painted image — assume a new logic together in which their individual signification is supplanted by the associative synergy found in abstract painting. We play on this flickering back and forth between abstraction and representation to create a number of readings.

We have extended the basic premise of the Lakeshore work by painting glasses directly on the wall and then projecting a simple animation on top. The projected animations are composed of a series of still photographs taken with a camera motor drive. In each still, the shape of a glass is masked out, illuminating the wall painting. Our recent animated films depict mundane events such as a school bus driving through an orange traffic light, or a clump of goldenrod swaying in the wind as a wave breaks on a rocky lakeshore behind.

Another component of Lakeshore is an ongoing series of short, anecdotal texts in either French and English that, like the photographs, recount our quotidian experiences. We have produced several DVDs in which our texts scroll over a repeating short video sequence.

Read Lakeshore texts by John Armstrong & Paul Collins

Read "Along the Lakeshore: an incantation for John & Paul," by Jeanne Randolph

Listen to Jeanne Randolph's "Along the Lakeshore" performed by MC/PC

Read a Globe and Mail review of Lakeshore by Gary Michael Dault

Read an introduction to Lakeshore by Cliff Eyland

See John Armstrong & Paul Collins on the Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art website