Image of Michael Armstrong

Artist Works

  • Image of Questions about Human Entitlement

    Michael Armstrong

    Questions about Human Entitlement

  • Image of MA We are the Children of the Sea

    Michael Armstrong

    MA We are the Children of the Sea

Artist Biography

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.

Artist Exhibitions

  • 19th Jan 2022 - 6th Feb 2022: Sandra Hussey – Containing Chance, Ben Reid – Birds of paradise and Michael Armstrong – Five New Paintings

    View Exhibition

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