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Martha Armstrong- The Reality of Appearance

Martha Armstrong is one of those rare painters who actually looks at things while they paint. That is, she paints what she sees, not what things should look like. We all know what things should look like. A bowl, for example, is something we can all make a recognizable image of. We can see it in our mind's eye. In the mind's eye, we see a white bowl. We see its hollow shape, the way it sits on a table, and we see just enough of an ellipse at the top to see that it's concave inside. So compare this idea of a bowl with the way Martha Armstrong depicts them in the painting Four Bowls. The bowls don't look anything like what our idea of a bowl looks like. Sometimes the familiar oval shape is cut across by a blue stripe of light; sometimes the shadow is muddy green that sits beside a blue grey when we somehow know that the actual bowl is only one color. Sometimes we see the familiar oval, sometimes only a partial shape or one fragmented by brilliant yellow backlighting. We are tempted to say that she is making all this up - that she is simply inventing a fantasy of the colors as they really are. But we know this isn't true. Somehow there is the ring of authenticity in the odd lozenge of blue grey, or the appearance of the literal yellow of a flashlight next to a shape bisected neatly by light. None of it looks real, but it all looks remarkably actual. There is a strong sting of actuality in all of this; an ordinariness to the subject that makes us instinctively know that this is an artist facing directly a table bisected by streams of light, covered with books and papers, randomly decorated with bowls and kitchen implements. But this isn't what we think of when we see the painting. We see shapes, colors, unexpected conjunctions of color and light. It is actual; we recognize this as being based upon actual events, but it doesn't look at all real. At least, it doesn't look at all real in any way we think things should look.

What is "realism"? Is Martha Armstrong painting what is real, what she imagines or what she sees? All three, of course. How can we seriously think we can separate them? What we see is a response to an experience of seeing. We all pretend to ourselves that things have a way they appear, and that this way of appearance is something more or less fixed and permanent. A bowl is a bowl is a bowl. So what do we see in an Armstrong painting? We see the same things recorded over and over again in a bewildering number of ways. Familiar objects are revealed in unfamiliar ways, reduced to almost indecipherable passages of color and paint. The space starts out one way, ends up another. We see the semblance of windows, tables and recognizable objects recorded in startlingly unfamiliar contexts, colors, fragmented shapes. The bowl will appear again and again in the same painting; as the light changes, the bowl changes and so she paints it again and again, bending and altering the space to match. And why not? Isn't that the way the world looks as it changes? In the painting Four Bowls, the sunlight on the table is seen as the most vivid yellow imaginable. It's not how you think it looks - but go out and look again. Find the light streaming into the window and force yourself to look beyond what you think you see and see it for the indecipherable mystery that it is. Looked at one way, a bowl is a circle; cut into shapes by bisecting reflections of colored light, it becomes something else. Colors are not restricted to what artists call local color. In fact, color is never local. Color is always particular: a shadowy blue is that way only because of its conjunction to a brilliant yellow. Bowls constantly change their apparent shape by how we view them, what light falls on them, from what angle you look at them, and your mood and the time of day. This is stuff you don't make up; it's what you see when you don't try to see it in a way which conforms to what you already think you see.

Cezanne once said something to the effect that he could paint entirely different paintings by tilting his head first this way and then that way. Along with Armstrong, he also chose to paint only what he saw...not what was "real", but what was actual in the moment of his observation. And as we all know, he saw some rather odd things. Or rather, familiar things in odd ways. Observation reveals that nothing has a fixed or constant appearance. Everything is relative to everything else. The world constantly changes because it never can be still. Unlike a camera, or the more permanent way things exist in our memories and imaginations, the world of visual appearances has no fixed appearance. A muddy orange makes a greenish shadow look more green than the same color against bright yellow. A shaft of light mysteriously makes a strip of white paper both brilliant yellow-white on one side and blue grey on the other. A table seen obliquely in the light breaks up into geometric patterns of light and shadow. Is there a correct or final way to see all of these phenomena? No, there is only a relentless parade of differences. It is what al- lows Armstrong or Cezanne the ability to paint the same thing over and over and over again. It's because it is never the same thing twice. How can it be? The light has changed. The colors have changed. The angles have changed. And the painter has changed. All is in flux. Nothing is permanent. Everything is in relationship; the way something is is because it is not the way it is not.

What makes these paintings so imaginative is that Armstrong leaves so little to the imagination. She is the most literal painter imaginable. Courbet once said that he couldn't paint angels because he couldn't see them. But Courbet constantly painted things from his memory and his invention. How could he sit in his studio, and paint his peasants and his cows without his ability to recreate, to imagine, to restage an event? By contrast, there are a few painters who don't paint angels because they aren't there when they look. You get the clear sense that Martha Armstrong doesn't need to paint angels. She paints whatever she finds, just because she finds it that way. She doesn't need to invent angels because the act of perception is a complete invention just as it is. Why worry about making something up when what you've got right in front of you is so endlessly changeable and fascinating? Why not see it in its infinity right there in front of you? These paintings are about what happens if you allow yourself to see the same things differently all the time. Sherlock Holmes says to Watson, you look but you do not observe. The trick is to see what you are looking at. Don't keep seeing what you think you see. Martha's paintings are perceptive rather than merely inventive. Anybody can invent things. We can invent because we know what things look like. But what can you perceive? Can you paint what you perceive when you look at a bowl? You can paint it how you think it should look, but can you paint it as you see it? That is, really see it as it actually appears to you? And can you see it differently over and over and over again- each time differently? That takes a keenness of eye that is more important than recording an appearance that you already know. Isn't it more fascinating to open your eyes to what is actually there? Or rather, to what appears and disappears, to what is actual? What is actual is more accurate than what is real. What is actual is merely an appearance. And what appears can never have the same appearance twice. Armstrong's portraits of doubles cel- ebrate this contraction: you paint not what you perceive, but your perception. And your perception - your sense of what's real - has no actual appearance to speak of.

Jeffrey Carr
Dean of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
2007

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