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Martha Armstrong- The Living Landscape

The landscape is alive and well in the hands of Martha Armstrong a painter who takes her task of representing the outdoor world seriously, and with a nearly seismic verve. In some ways she is distantly related to the angular abstractions of a painter such as John Marin, who captured both the city and countryside with an abandon that still stuns the viewer. Like that painter, Armstrong develops a spiky, nearly schematic treatment of the outside world: colors are bright without being garish; forms are placed so that they are nearly architectural in their structure without becoming overly heavy-handed or conceptually simple. One has the sense that Armstrong's style reflects her interest in the overall gestalt of her pine trees. In Buddha tree, for example colors angle up and jostle each other as if each bit of paint was struggling, both abstractly and figuratively, to make sense of its larger plan. The result is a syncopated energy conducted by the artist's judicious sense of form, in which the elements of the composition build up to a powerful statement without forgetting their piecemeal role in the general endeavor.

This is easier said than done. Armstrong convinces her audience of both expression and motive by demonstrating a tight sense of composition and construction. Her color schemes are her own; in the smallish oil on canvas entitled Buddha Tree (2004), for example, a single tree stands in front of darker, green-brown foliage. Its own color, a mustardy yellow with patches of green and gray, stands out in its own right, asserting its difference from the darker ground. Iconographically, it is not so far away from the outdoor studies of Fairfield Porter; there is a similar schematic intelligence in regard to nature and color in Armstrong's work. Sometimes she will pack color into a diminutive field: Fall Fire (2004) is only 16 by 10 inches but consists of a series of bright red swathes, pieced together in a nearly treelike configuration, against green, gray and brown underbrush in the background. Armstrong is not only painting a natural conflagration in this work, she is also rendering the feeling of such an event deep within a natural setting. Her work compels a response both formally and emotionally, in ways that do genuine justice to the appearance of nature.

Another small oil. Glory Morning (2004), becomes an excuse to render the landscape in a horizontal weave of colors. Yellows and blacks predominate, with a single white vertical in the center of the painting. The sheer pleasure of color is central to Armstrong's amibition, which takes nature as a starting point and allows it to develop as a fertile ground for brilliant hues. The viewer sees this done on a regular basis, and so grows used to experiencing a cascade of forms in irregular colors nearly expressionist in their intensity. Autumn Maples (2004) at 30 by 48 inches a larger work for Armstrong, consists of three glowing trees on the left, painted in orange-yellows and pale greens. Their rounded outlines are contrasted with the spiky, angular tree forms on the right side of the painting, where nature is not nearly so romantically rendered. One can see the tan and gray foreground of the painting as being suggestive of rocks bolstering the lower half of the composition. The parts of Autumn Maples fit neatly together, like pieces of a puzzle, but there is always an exploratory energy within Armstrong's art. She consistently investigates the landscape with expressive gestures whose vibrancy engages her audience with intelligence and energy attributes central to a committed sense of art.

Jonathan Goodman
Jonathan Goodman is a poet and art writer whose reviews and articles have been published in Art in America, Sculpture, and Art Asia Pacific. He teaches at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.

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