Martha Armstrong on painting

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Martha Armstrong on painting

A painting has to come to terms with everything the artist has experienced, everything suffered, enjoyed, felt, understood. It has to have that kind of complexity. Nature has that immense complexity. Think about collage, fractures, dissonance, playfulness, exuberance, paint, anger, everything.

How do you get that if you stay with straight representation? Abstraction doesnt connect to any thing. The full impact of photography is coming to bear on painting.

When I start doing something and realize the camera can do it better I realize the absurdity of what I'm doing. Much of the history of painting is based on images the camera can do better. I've started cutting pictures out of the New York Times. Why would a painter even want to do that now- paint an image of a Korean woman at a bridge disaster? So where does that leave painting?


At one time some painting had the purpose of some photography today- to make a record, capture a likeness exactly. What would Holbein draw today? For 30,000 years, from the earliest known cave paintings, painting revealed an internal life rhythm, heartbeat, dance rhythms, breathing. The photograph cannot give that. When we see ourselves in a photograph we see ourselves static, dissociated from our life rhythm. That's our image of ourselves today.

The eye sees very differently from the camera. The eye brings everything up to sharp focus- near, middle, far- and that's the picture plane. The picture plane has its own logic. It has a sense of pressure and tautness that somehow comes from inside, from something internal, a feeling- a translation of something that isn't visual.

Reverse perspective is making things farther away bigger, not smaller. It's a tradition in Asian art. Picasso and Derain used it. Sometimes that's the only way to bring the distance to the surface and have it carry the right importance.

The artist makes your eye move. Compare a photograph of a man in front of a barn to a Roman stele. I think this is what Leiand Bell meant when he spoke about painting the arabesque.

The only way I can keep my painting from feeling frivolous is to stay very close to the fact of the landscape. It is mundane and has its own peculiarity. The only justification for changing anything I'm looking at is when I can't paint it straight- when that will not get what I see. But painting is always a translation- an illusion, not an appearance.

Seeing- and the painting that comes from seeing- can only be one way at a particular moment. Some paintings are done in a day; some have pieces of many days. To get what you see you cannot paint what you see. It's a battle between what you see and what you know. You take what you need to make a painting. The landscape has everything and nothing to do with the painting.

When I drove across the country I'd break every day to paint. You can do a take of something once; but this gets boring after a while. Much more interesting is to paint something over and over. Degas painted certain landscapes every hour of the day.

What you're trying to do in painting is make the marks, forms and colors bear all the weight of reality and of feeling. I get at this best painting outside - the studio without walls.

-Martha Armstrong
December 1997



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