Review by Gerrit Henry

Selected Paintings
Most Recent

Gallery Representation


"Whatever You Paint, You Bring Everything to That Moment"

Any one of Martha Armstrong's edgy exuberant canvases might be called "The Joy of Painting" - the very apparent joy, for the artist, of the painterly doing, and for the fortunate viewer the joy in the beholding. The same cannot be said of most of todays artists young or old whose trademark seems roundly to be "The Diminution of Painting - and All Joy in Its Viewing."

It is extremely hard to say why so many in todays art scene gravitate to the negative, and so few to the positive - in some ways, modernism has, from its inception, always been a nay-saying proposition. In Armstrongs positive case, it might be the external combustion of her first meeting up with a paint set in kindergarten; it might be her nature keen, contemplative. Certainly a solid grounding in the arts, fine and liberal at Smith College contributed to the temperament, nor can we rule out the rich giving-and-taking that goes to make up college-level teaching at to name a few, the Kansas City Art Institute, Mount Holyoke, Indiana University, and the aforementioned Smith.

Add to all these influences from Corot to the Fauves to Mardsen Hartley to the late Leiand Bell and you have an artist whose essential grasp of what shes doing and why are planted in conceptual and technical bedrock. This is not to deny Armstrongs landscape paintings - of Cassis, in southern France, and Vermont and Massachusetts - a lyrical component the natural outcome of an affinity for nature that ranks her, poetically, with all her forebears. Its just that, Armstrong feels, there must be more than "fuzzy "or "sugges- tive" lyricism to a work, large or small - there must be "a clear, cold, structure, a focus. Painting is an act of will."

Indeed Armstrongs work could be called existential as well as - and perhaps even more so than - poetic. "Whatever you paint" she says, "you bring to that moment. You're concentrating, looking at a certain spot, but you've got to bring everything to bear on it. And you can only do that by choosing a specific color, a specific line - these have to stand for everything."

An admirer of The Eights, John Sloan, Armstrong loves the Knockabout nature of the modern American landscape ("Thomas Cole has not been an influence"). With Europe, she says, where she has now lived three summers running there are "ghosts" of a landscape-painting tradition going back centuries. At first, the challenge was to translate French landscape pretty much en plein air - even au premire coup - into her own vigorous and vital stone-cold-lovely painterly vocabulary. Earlier practice sessions gave way to fully achieved, flinty and endearing canvases the tone of which is bouyant with romance and hope.

The further challenge has been to translate that European spirit back to the full-grown America that was its nursling. The word "spirit" is a slightly loaded one here. In paintings from 1999 done near and around the campus of Hollins University Virginia, the "ghosts" are gone and have left behind them almost pure spirit - inventive, newfangled stroke audacious desirous color and becalming, all-over riot prevail in a kind of graceful honky-tonk of the home of the tree and the brave. Armstrongs career is now more than ever one to watch. She is to be sure, "present and honest about what is in front of me." She is also presently and honestly - and almost mercilessly - inspired, at the start of a millennium that promises more.

-Gerrit Henry
Gerrit Henry is a contributing editor for ARTnews, and reviews monthly for Art in America. He has published feature and critical articles in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, People, and has served as art critic for The New Republic.



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