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Martha Armstrong- Stepping into Good Weather

The first thing we get from Martha Armstrong's paintings is the endorphin-rush of stepping into good weather. The sun pours down through backlit branches; taut shadows stripe hillsides; sky, roof, and grass batter each other with a reciprocal brilliance. Adjusting your eyes to all this glare and warmth, you can almost hear a screen door bang behind you. It's a welcoming, and in some ways a familiar world that Armstrong ushers us into- precarious territory for a contemporary painter. But Armstrong's world isn't "summery" in any tranquil sense. Rather, it's deliciously vertiginous, a world of plunging fish-eye perspectives, gusting winds, and zigzagging impulsive shapes. The shack and balustrade that appear in the foreground of so many of Armstrong's Vermont landscapes often seem physically necessary, something to hold onto while you get your balance, and before you vault over them into the wilderness in the middle distance. It's not really a wilderness of course; nor is it a cultivated landscape, precooked for painting. It is something more demanding, and (for an American) evocative: a patch of ordinary rural woods, the kind that grows back from clearcutting or gets left over when we carve out our roads and summer homes. It is a representative of the actual nature around us, battered but surprisingly resilient, still capable of sponsoring a disorderly delight. Armstrong's French pictures answer a different set of challenges. Painting on the southern coast, near Marseilles, Armstrong confronts a landscape that is nearly synonymous with pictorial tradition. For any painter, but especially for a painter like Armstrong whose Modernist bloodlines are so strong (reaching back from the Fauves all the way to Corot), this territory is a kind of Holy Land.

Painting en plein air here means painting literally "in full air"— in air full of ghosts. The challenge is to be buoyed, rather than daunted, by having so much history at one's elbow. And in her paintings of kinked pines, wriggling against a distant headland, or terraces stepping down to the simple blue plane of a bay, Armstrong's buoyancy is hard to doubt. In both groups of paintings, Armstrong takes a subject that ought to be fatigued- the Yankee woods, the Mediterranean coast- and gives it an unexpected freshness. How does she do it? Part of the answer is spatial clarity: whether it's a branch, a shrub, or a meadow, Armstrong makes each form feel carpentered, solid, touchable. She plants her treetrunks like telephone poles, and folds the most hard-to-pin-down motifs- waving branches and clouds- into odd, exact origami shapes. The same discpline is present in her color, which is both specific and exaggerated, attentive and inventive. And yet all this decision-making happens at high speed, executed by a skidding, racing, exuberant brush. The result is that the jagged bright spaces of these paintings are both forceful and invigoratingly open. Craft disappears into excitement, and we are left with a complicated pleasure that feels as simple as walking outside.

-Alexi Worth
November 1997
Alexi Worth is a New York based art critic and a regular contributer to ARTnews.

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