Bill Armstrong

Unspoken
March 4 — 27, 2021

Unspoken 1502, 2016 | Chromogenic print | 20 x 24, 30 x 36, 40 x 48 in
Unspoken 1502, 2016 | Chromogenic print | 20 x 24, 30 x 36, 40 x 48 in

This exhibition presents two bodies of work that are part of a larger, on-going project known as the Infinity series, begun in 1997. As part of his process, Armstrong appropriates found images, which he photocopies, cuts, paints, re-photographs, and ultimately completely transforms. To blend the collaged elements together and create seamless images, he sets his camera’s focusing ring to infinity and shoots them up-close. Blurred, brightly colored, and highly evocative, the resulting photographs occupy a realm between the real and fantastic, memories and dreams, our inner worlds and the otherworldly.

Titled Quarantine, Armstrong’s most recent body of work was created in response to his own experience of quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic. The images feature portraits of prominent artists, writers, and philosophers who suffered quarantine-like circumstances during their own lives due to plagues, persecution, injury, or emotional instability. On view here are the blurred though intensely intimate likenesses—coded in vivid colors—of Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and Thomas Mann, among others. The writer and critic Lyle Rexer writes: “[Armstrong] offers their example in the conviction that our suffering anduncertainty can be redeemed, if not fully understood, by connecting with the past. The [...] series tell us that others faced grim realities and responded with a quest for permanence and a communication beyond time and trauma.”

3D tour of 'Unspoken' and 'Quarantine'
3D tour of 'Unspoken' and 'Quarantine'

The second group of photographs, titled Unspoken, explores aspects of the human condition through the lens of interpersonal dynamics. Each of the images in the series features two, sometimes three, figures; more often than not, they are separated within the frame and looking in different directions, as in Unspoken 1502. The blurring effect that is central to Armstrong’s aesthetic obscures the figures’ individual identities, lending them an archetypal weight. In so doing, this effect becomes a metaphor for the “ambiguity, frustration, and lack of clarity” so common in human relationships. Yet the images also offer reassurance: If we are alone, we are alone together. If we are separated, we may be on the cusp of an unexpected encounter. 

Certain backgrounds appropriate elements from night photographs by well-known photographers, allowing Armstrong to borrow their “darker sensibilities.” Others harness the chromatic psychology and gestural feel of abstract color-field paintings to inflect Unspoken’s final emotional effect. This effect is heightened by Armstrong’s use of film for the series: with film, as with interpersonal relationships, there is an element of uncertainty and often unmet or exceeded expectations—an alchemy that cannot be controlled, contained, or replicated. 

Bill Armstrong was born in 1952 and earned his B.A. from Boston University in 1979. The prize-winning photographer has exhibited extensively throughout North America and internationally, and has taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography. His art can be found in the permanent collections of the Vatican Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Bibliothèque National de France, among others. This is his second solo exhibition at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery.