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Robert Armstrong's Disestablishmentarian

The semi-obscure California artist emerges at Barbara Anderson Gallery, briefly.



Antidisestablishmentarianism is a word we've all bandied about, lightly; for shame! Real antidisestablishmentarians led by William Gladstone (who coined the term in 1838) successfully opposed the disestablishment of the Church of England as state religion — a comfort to royalist believers everywhere.

Art is the new aesthetic religion, of course, but it's also, these days, entertainment and business. Many contemporary art-worlders fling open the gates to Parnassus, implicitly accepting the Institutional Theory of Art of philosopher/critic Arthur Danto ("To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld") and theorist George Dickie ("A work of art ... is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution [the artworld] has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation"). Like the keepers of The Ark, we're "top men"; we know what's best.

One artist who seems indifferent to the status hierarchy hoopla is Robert Armstrong of Monterey, who recently exhibited in two small Berkeley galleries; the Garage Gallery show closed last week, but Meanwhile ... and Elsewhere continues at Barbara Anderson Gallery. Despite a cult following from his Berkeley days, his diffidence is notable: "I installed work in a small bookshop window on Claremont Ave. from 1987 to 2000. That was the closest thing I've found to an ideal way to engage people and show my work. ... Although there is the occasional critical response, and a small number of "fans," basically I don't do anything to develop wider connections, etc. I think I prefer the ease of just doing what I want to with an occasional show as a bridge."

Marsden Hartley's "hermit radical" beau idéal? The work is anything but obscure or pretentious; it is instead beautiful, eccentric, and funny, radiant with "surprise, learning, fascination, and challenge to expectations." The small- and medium-size abstract "pattern" and "plaid" paintings, with their staccato rhythms and delectable palettes, are infectiously joyous, melding Dubuffet, Haring, and aboriginal art (and probably other improbables). He adds collage and assemblage to book covers and vinyl LP discs (which take on a hieroglyphic-punk look). He twists strands of kelp into Benglis-like knots, which he designates "charms," and labels them with gibberish words, and constructs elegantly absurd spindle-shaped carrying cases for various oddments. His wire-mesh cases for balls of compressed newspaper evoke the cosmic lottery in which we all participate, with or without benefit of clergy. Meanwhile ... and Elsewhere runs through May 7 at Barbara Anderson Gallery (2243 5th St., Berkeley). 510-848-3822 or

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