MA ( Questions about) Human Entitlement
MA We are the Children of the Sea
Michael Armstrong was born in Christchurch in 1954 and has regularly exhibited since 1969. He graduated from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1976. He lives in Timaru in South Canterbury and had a lengthy career as an art tutor at Aoraki Polytechnic, later Ara Institute. He was the University of Otago’s Francis Hodgkins Fellow in 1984 and received a CSA Guthrey Travel Award in 1990.
Armstrong is both painter and sculptor, and his work has a striking anarchic energy combining expressive figuration and line, and vibrant colour. This rich synthesis of formal diversity, volatile composition, and spontaneity is deeply life affirming and humanistic, and has characterised his work for the last five decades. This remains a continuous, anchoring thread throughout all phases of his ongoing exploration of form and meaning. In painting, Armstrong displays a technically fluid command of a variety of styles imbedded in a push-pull interplay of decorative surface and illusory depth. This dynamic tension segues via Frank Stella-esque shaped or rough-edged and unstretched canvases into Armstrong’s sculptural practice, evolving from late modernism in a pop palette into post-painterly abstraction.
“I came across Stella after I had already started to play in 3D painting,” says Armstrong, “but he certainly had a great influence. I was more interested in painting in 3D, which was often dismissed as decoration. 3D painting had many ramifications on meaning, from spiritual layering and the unseen, to the logical, where rather than the illusion of 3D, those works just took the idea literally.” Visually it stands alone, but the formation of style cannot be entirely separated from geographical context. There are deep roots in the European neo-expressionism tradition associated with the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts – Rudolf Gopas, Philip Clairmont, Allen Maddox, Tony Fomison, Philip Trusttum, Philippa Blair – which, while supplying a strongly motivating vigour, has long since transmuted into a postmodern eclecticism. “I was taught by Gopas,” says Armstrong, “and Phil Trusttum was an early influence. After that I looked to Australia, Peter Booth for instance. Australia had a much more positive attitude towards painting and expressionism, so I tended to look there rather than the strong conceptual, sculptural emphasis here. Gopas was well passed his most influential by the time I was art school. He was very unwell. He was more conceptual in his own way, and after he left the institution, he got into being a performance poet.”
Of greater influence at Canterbury was painting tutor Quentin MacFarlane, and the theoretical concepts introduced by Ted Bracey. There is a great deal of MacFarlane’s oceanic colour fields and Bracey’s jazzy quasi-cubism in the way Armstrong composes his paintings, but Bracey also brought an interest in the post-painterly and postmodern eclecticism. “Although I have always enjoyed those new art forms when I see them,” says Armstrong, “painting did get it in the neck 30 years ago. Conceptual art has a strong personal expression at its core, as did post modernism. I did look closely at the theories inherent in postmodernism.”
After this Armstrong lived in Dunedin for a time, finding great stimulation in its vibrant cultural milieu. “The arts community was hugely lively then,” he says, “Andrew Drummond, Ralph Hotere and particularly the developing ideas of Jeffrey Harris. Also, Kobi Bosshard, the silversmith, and his disciplined thinking. Bosshard was a role model. He played with 3D sculpture as well, colour. In those years – 1976 through 1979 – learning colour theory was important to my work.”
Armstrong absorbs as he goes. The lived experience even takes precedence over the theoretical. He learns from what is around him and works in that space that Robert Rauschenberg called “the gap between art and life”. In relation to an exhibition of his work at Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Gallery in 1985 he wrote at the time: “I do not see my art as being separate from my life, or that it is an activity that needs the protection of silence. I work through different levels of my conscious and unconscious varying between immediate hedonism and emotion to a delayed reaction and detached analysis of events and situations and of how to express these as ideas. To use the terminology, I work in an abstract expressionistic manner, the use of paint conveying the attitude to life.” [“Michael Armstrong Artists Project”, Bulletin, No.38, March/April 1985, p.1].
Life dictates response in form and colour, of which those 3D canvases were an important transitional phase, establishing an entire philosophy to the artist’s process of making. The act of making becomes a poetic gesture, a quasi-divine act of creation imposing order and logos on the formless void: “The canvas hangs loosely, has its own properties. It expresses itself. The edge, cut roughly, implies relationship both to the inner shape, and to the outer, surrounding space, that the canvas is part of a real cosmos not isolating the painting within rigid structuring. The paint is as an event, something that happened across the surface of the canvas, forms created, and ideas expressed, the balance between order and chaos, in the human striving to create order out of chaos, figures and gestures overlap, replace each other, within an abstract chaotic energetic cosmos. The canvas continues on both sides, part of an infinity that folds over itself, revealing only part.” [“Michael Armstrong Artists Project”, Bulletin, No.38, March/April 1985, p.1].
While the paintings, for example, have a clear emphasis on their existence as objects and their haecceity, they are also concrete records of inscape and emotional life in the moment. Art is a way of life and Armstrong’s art is full of therapeutic catharsis and humour, but not at the expense of aesthetic analytical logic. That said, there is an objective awareness of the Anthropocene world that permeates Armstrong’s more recent work with a wryly ironic, apocalyptic sensibility. Environmental and social concerns emerge to the fore.
Armstrong’s 2017 exhibition Preaching to the Disconcerted, which showed at the Central Gallery in Christchurch, blended cartoonish renderings of Hokusai’s wave with disembodied limbs, and spermatozoic splatters of white in turbulent fields of colour as a rallying cry around climate change, ecological collapse, and civil unrest. This finds a curious frisson with the artist’s delight in the cartoonish grotesque and human psychodrama. This sensibility animates the masks and stage elements he designed for a production of Aristophanes’ Clouds in 2019. Here a puckish irreverence creeps out, with hints of Gerald Scarfe. This eclecticism is one of Armstrong’s greatest strengths, the ability to draw on so many sources across so many media and handle them all confidently and well. This mainlines directly into the urgency of the artist’s message and concerns which grow more urgent every passing day. He is refining a kind of history painting that seeks to make sense of the seemingly arbitrary, the fragmented and tempestuous fabric of the modern world. These are anxious times inching ever closer to total existential collapse.
“My realization today,” says Armstrong, “is that, in my current work, any particular work may be finished in one of several different manners. The works begin and develop as broadly handled colour abstractions, but according to my own mood, determination, or vagary, may end by being solved in one of several modes. Of staying as an abstract, another of being people by figures, mobs, and rioters, of becoming an apocalyptic seascape, or of an architectural projection of a sort. All hint at a climate change apocalypse and the different potential responses or outcomes, from scenes devoid of life, to scenes where humans are responding as unpredictable and unmanageable humans. This is not a conceptual game on my part, but my painterly response to the issues we face.” Even so, Armstrong’s colourism and formal frivolity suggest a hope for humanity that hasn’t entirely been extinguished. It is impossible to love colour and not have an element of optimism in the soul. One can not be a humanist and not still have hope.
19th Jan 2022 - 6th Feb 2022: Sandra Hussey – Containing Chance, Ben Reid – Birds of paradise and Michael Armstrong – Five New Paintings