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By Aaren Madden, September 2013
By holding and guiding the gaze, landscape painter Steven Armstrong conveys both place and presence.
There is a certain old, gangly arbutus tree that grows along the Songhees Walkway. Most of the time it is majestic enough, but in the early evening, when the sun’s rays strike it just so, this tree has the power to stop people in their tracks: it appears illuminated from within. For a few moments, it emanates an essential magic that provides passersby with a visceral, personal interaction with that particular place. It’s a feeling of complete presence in the landscape.
In his acrylic on canvas painting called “Straights and Narrows,” Victoria landscape artist Steven Armstrong similarly renders an arbutus aglow in the early evening. It mimics stained glass in its reflection of raking sunlight. Placed slightly left of centre on the canvas, it is brought into balance by gold and red hues of dry grasses and foliage in the richly-shadowed foreground and intensified by contrast to the crisp blue water and mountains behind. It is a capsule of this coast, late day, late summer. Though Armstrong employs an impressionist approach and does not go in for minute detail, one feels a bodily presence in the landscape.
Armstrong is interested in and motivated by such interactions, of what binds us to a certain place—and, subsequently, the challenge of holding viewers within a painting of the same. “It starts off with a place; you are inspired by the place,” he says. Understanding a place enough to convey its essence visually, however, is never instantaneous. “When you are seeing something for the first time, it’s so new; it’s hard to get a really strong connection to it. Whereas going back to a place several times, you become familiar with it, and that allows you to explore it a little bit more. The next time you go back, or the time after that, you might see something you didn’t notice the first time, and that could be what’s really important about that place,” he explains. “I approach painting as a form of communicating an ever-changing relationship with place.”
However, “at some point, it stops being about that spot, and it becomes about the painting you are working with,” he continues. On one level, generating an aesthetic experience is simply about the physicality of looking. Holding the eye in the canvas and directing it by subtle suggestion is a challenge Armstrong—like most artists—grapples with in every painting. How he meets that challenge has to do with technical concerns, such as how he applies the paint and how he moves his brush through and about the canvas, in a sense creating a pathway for the viewer to enter and remain following, to become as familiar with the painting as he has become with multiple visits to the place.
He explains, “I often like paintings that have a lot of impasto to them, so they are thick, goopy; the brushstrokes become very important. When you can see that movement, it often fills in an area. You can control the way the eye is moving with these brushstrokes. If you are working in a heavier paint, it’s more obvious. It’s got a lot to do with your body and the way it works, how you hold the brush, all these things.”
“Having said that, I don’t paint in impasto,” he laughs. Instead, he applies layers of paint in deliberately directed strokes to large areas, working with the whole as opposed to focusing on small areas at once. He uses acrylic, which has the advantage of drying quickly to aid in this process, but achieving the depth of colour possible with oil is challenging. To overcome this, Armstrong says, “I’ll do passages through paintings; I tend to build up things. Because of the layering, the paint has quite a luminous quality to it. When the light penetrates it, it picks up all these different colours.” Close examination of his works shows this, with oranges peeking from behind greys and greens; like an impressionist or pointillist work, as you step further back, the image takes on its coherence. The viewer remains engaged and within the work, following strokes and colours that build up to the whole.
Additionally, Armstrong’s compositional sense often creates an immediacy that is suggestive of the viewer’s presence in the landscape. “A Deft Emotional Response” and “Shadows and Other Puzzles” both draw attention to the immediate foreground so as to offer space for the body to engage and retrace, if unconsciously, Armstrong’s passages through the canvas. “If you have something established in the foreground, it helps you into the painting and can hold you in it,” Armstrong has found.
For Armstrong, creating resonant imagery involves art and science, a combination of the technique he has honed and the instinct to convey it. Even before 1997, a year after Armstrong settled in Victoria and got serious about landscape painting, he always had an innately strong sense of place. Perhaps it was in his genes: he was born in 1962 to an artist mother and a geologist father—both, consequently, with enormous capacity for observation of the landscape, albeit through profoundly different lenses. “You are looking at patterns both ways, but one is from the perspective of an engineer, and the other is from an artist,” he observes. “I think both of those play in when you are a painter.”
Early childhood was spent in remote areas of Ontario, and he seems to have internalized it, as he later did the coast. “Having gone back [to Ontario] years later to tree plant, it just imprints on you: the lakes, the geological forms,” he says of the compelling familiarity of Ontario. When he was four, his family settled in Vancouver. He spent a great deal of time at a family cabin on Gambier Island in Howe Sound, where he was able to roam at will and soak up a deep love of the landscape. After studying for two years at Emily Carr School of Art and Design, he reluctantly left the coast and worked a variety of jobs, including as a graphic designer and a builder.
Armstrong has lived in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and continues to enjoy travel, often going to India to meditate. He is inspired by all places he visits—“the air, the colours, the light”—and is contemplating painting imagery from India as well as spending time in northern Canada. However, he is still very much immersed in the West Coast and finds endless sources of subject matter and inspiration here. “There are a lot of places on the coast I haven’t explored, and I would like to,” he shares.
Of those that he has explored recently, the resulting works (including those discussed above) are being shown in “Collected Landscapes for Autumn,” his eighth solo exhibition at West End Gallery. In it, Armstrong offers paintings that suggest the essence of place as a point of departure. “I’ve approached this exhibition with the intention of painting images that are more than simply interpretations of locations,” he says. The attempt is to create paintings that, while built from recognizable places, will be suggestive of a broader human experience within the context of our natural environment.” As such, his paintings become as much about presence as they are about place.
“Collected Landscapes for Autumn” runs from September 21 to October 3 at West End Gallery, 1203 Broad St, www.westendgalleryltd.com, 250-388-0009. The opening reception with Steven Armstrong is on September 21, 1-4pm.
As the days turn cooler, writer and Victoria West resident Aaren Madden will be warmed by the image of the early evening light bathing the arbutus trees in late summer.