Stephen Armstrong

AP37 Process artist Stephen Armstrong outlines his attraction to the landscape - both natural and man-made - and his engagement with it through paint. His latest exhibition focuses upon a large body of paintings and linocuts from the last five years, including many images from the Alphington Papermills series. Opening this Friday 24 February, it a rare opportunity to see such an expansive showcasing of his work and it's development over the last five years.

I love painting. It is my way of understanding the world around me. Everywhere I look I see a face or a landscape that demands to be caught on canvas.

I do lots of drawings with ink, pencil and charcoal to know a subject, but it is oil paint that really excites me. There is nothing like the smell and feel of oils, they have a tactile, physical quality. Each brushstroke is like trying to catch hold of time, to pin it down before it slips away.

How I compose a picture is very important to me. I swing between a Classical and Romantic sense of pictorial composition. The Classical is all verticals and horizontals, echoing the edges of the canvas. This way of composing can be seen in paintings by Piero della Francesca, Vermeer or Mondrian and give the work a sense of order and stability and is reassuring. When I have used this device too much, I like to go to its opposite – the dynamic, spiralling composition used in the Baroque or Romantic tradition. Rubens, Delacroix or Jackson Pollock would be good examples of this tradition. These paintings are more restless; the image almost explodes out of the canvas.

Much of my time is spent looking through art books. I like to copy the old masters, trying to work out some of their compositional devices. My tastes are eclectic and I relate to artists from many different cultures and periods, but I just keep coming back to Cezanne and Van Gogh. In my opinion, they realised a perfect balance between an inner and outer vision. They looked out at their world, processed their vision, and created paintings that reflected their temperaments. This is what I would like to achieve.

Like the Post-Impressionists, I like working within the traditional genres – the figure, still life and landscape, with landscape being the most prevalent. For the last 20 years I have mainly painted on site or plein air. I find working in front of the motif is more exciting and surprising than working from drawings and photographs in the studio. I paint quickly, responding to my mood and the atmosphere of the scene in front of me, trying to capture my reactions to a specific place at a specific time. Most of my paintings are finished in one session and rarely take more than a couple of hours.

I prefer to work in a series, finding a landscape that appeals to me and developing a rapport with it over time. I like to build a group of images (body of work) that expresses more about the landscape than just one painting.

In recent years I have worked with a number of different landscapes, shifting between the natural and the man-made. I have had two studio residencies which reflect this – Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River in NSW and St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. The Arthur Boyd property, Bundanon, is a stunning landscape of paddocks, homestead and sheds, forest and an almost beach-like stretch of river. Arthur’s famous Pulpit Rock overlooks this magical place. My residency at St Vincent’s Hospital gave me access to a studio high above Melbourne with fantastic city views. Skyscrapers, the Exhibition Gardens and fast-moving stormy skies all excited my visual imagination.

I live in Fairfield, a Melbourne suburb, and my recent series have all come from close to home. When my wife, Gillian, and I first moved to the suburbs to start our family I was struck by the balance between the nature and architecture of the area. ‘Lines and Poles’ is an attempt to uncover the hidden geometry of the suburbs. This view greets me every morning when I step out of my house. I have painted this dogleg about 10 times trying to unlock its secrets.

The lure of nature led me to the Darebin Parklands, a large area close to my home. Here I explored a number of themes – Darebin Creek, a row of very old mulberry trees, and the rail bridge were some of the scenes that attracted me. Some scrubby bush that could have been anywhere in Australia helped loosen the painting up. Though these landscapes are observed, my thinking about them became very abstract. It was all rhythm, flow and energy in my head and on the canvas. ‘Mulberry Trees’ is a good example of this with its dynamic swirling composition that wants to expand out of the canvas.

I sometimes think of myself as an abstract artist trapped inside a figurative painter’s body. Painting is essentially a solitary activity. As my old teacher, Jan Senbergs said, “Making marks is a lonely business.” So it’s nice to go out with friends occasionally. A couple of years ago I had an exhibition with fellow artists Richard Birmingham and Mark Dober – a plein air landscape show. We went out painting together a few times in the lead up to the exhibition. It was refreshing to have a cup of tea and sandwich while discussing our work for the day. ‘Men at Work’ was painted at the Darebin Creek in Alphington on one such occasion.

My latest painting site sees me back dealing with the man-made. The old Amcor Paper mills in Alphington is a huge tract of land strewn with buildings in different stages of being demolished. This deconstruction landscape offers many possibilities. Half-destroyed buildings, diggers, piles of wire and concrete create a surreal, post-apocalyptic landscape that I have to capture quickly as it changes so fast. Buildings are there one day and gone the next. This site holds a fragile link to past prosperity. ‘Derelict Landscape’ depicts partially gutted buildings, broken up roads, signs and fences restricting access. The swirling, stormy sky emphasises a feeling of foreboding and upheaval.

While working on this series I thought about the processes that are enacted upon the landscape, how everything is in a state of flux. What was once lightly walked upon by Indigenous people became farmland and then an industrial site, is now being turned into a mini city with 10,000 people. The action of building and tearing down is like a miniature form of what happens to continents over millions of years – how they rise and fall back into the sea. It is also a bit like how one makes a painting – applying and scraping off paint until some sort of resolution is reached.

Every year the Chapel Street Traders invite artists to produce work in the street over a couple of weekends. For a plein air artist who likes to deal with the urban environment, this was an opportunity to get amongst it in busy Greville and Chapel Streets. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the hustle and bustle of the street. It made me think I would like to get more people into my paintings in the future. Maybe this will spark the next group of paintings.

EXHIBITION
Stephen Armstrong | Recent Works
25 February – 9 March 2017
Collingwood Gallery, 292 Smith St, Melbourne

Courtesy the artist