Monday, February 1, 2016

In Conversation: James Armstrong

One of our favourite artists from the current exhibition, Dialect: Works from the Town Hall Gallery Collection, is Ian Armstrong (b. Malvern, 1923-2005). His artistic oeuvre includes portraits and landscape paintings, where his later works developed into Abstract Expressionism, utilising printmaking techniques such as etchings, lithographs and wood cuts. His dedication to his craft was matched by his passion for teaching and love of regional Victoria. 

Gallery & Curatorial Assistant Marion Piper recently spoke with Ian's son, James Armstrong, who generously loaned two paintings to Town Hall Gallery for Dialect.

Ian Armstrong's suite of works currently on display at Town Hall Gallery 
in Dialect: Works from the Town Hall Gallery Collection.
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[MARION PIPER]: Can you tell us, if you know, where your father Ian drew his inspiration from?

[JAMES ARMSTRONG]: That is a big question and probably deserving of a whole thesis rather a short email, however here goes. 
I have had look at his library to get some insight, if I break his book collection into 3 areas of influence for simplification, it could be looked at like this:

1. Classical influences: Ancient, Medieval, Japanese and Renaissance art.

2. Romantic influences such as Delacroix, Rembrandt, Velasquez etc

3. Modern influences from the late 19th century and early 20th century : Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Derain etc. Also the Australian Heidelberg school and the George Bell school.

This is a very brief account of his influences and obviously doesn't do his 60 year career justice, but maybe that can wait for a thesis sometime in the future.

[MP]: Yes, I had figured it was a big question to ask!
I’m interested in the second group of books - the Romantic influences. How do you think this plays out with his depictions of the landscape? Do you have a work of his that, for you, best exemplifies this influence?

[JA]: I'm not formally art trained, so I can only give you my acquired knowledge. Only to say that there are probably elements of all these influences in his work.

ARMSTRONG, Ian, Self Portrait (1944), oil on canvas,
(c) courtesy of the artist and Town Hall Gallery.
Photograph by Matthew Stanton, 2013.

If I were to point to a work by Ian in the THG collection that fits that "Romantic feel", it would be the early Self-Portrait. I know that Ian loved the Rembrandt self-portraits and may have been inspired at that age. 

It is also evident he was influenced by these artists as he kept an artist journal inspired by the Delacroix Journals, a copy of which is in his library. Ian's journals are now held in the SLV. There is a woodcut print that Ian did in 1978, The Buffoon (After Velasquez), which is further indication of his admiration for these artists.

[MP]: Yes, I can definitely see the romantic influence in the self-portrait you mention from our collection.

We have loaned a couple of works from you for the exhibition Dialect. Can you tell us a little bit about those works?

ARMSTRONG, Ian, Mill Road, Yankalilla SA (1988),
(c) courtesy of James Armstrong.

[JA]: The two works we have loaned to the Dialect exhibition are Mill Road and Roadside Café. They are both testament to Ian's love of taking landscaping road trips.

Detail of ARMSTRONG, Ian, Mill Road, Yankalilla SA (1988), oil on canvas, 
(c) courtesy of James Armstrong.
Mill Road is painted at Yankalilla South Australia where Ian often visited, staying with Mark Pearse a former National Gallery School student of Ian's. They would spend weeks at a time painting the Fleurieu Peninsula and decorating ceramics at Mark's Bungala workshop. 

ARMSTRONG, Ian, Roadside Cafe (2002), oil on canvas, 
(c) courtesy of James Armstrong.

The Roadside Café is inspired by the long drives that Ian would do to get to South Australia. It depicts a coffee break at Tailem Bend on the Murray River, which is where Ian would often take a break from the long drive to visit Yankalilla. He would have made a quick sketch of the scene on a small card (that he always kept on hand) and later it would be worked up to a large painting. The process may have taken a few years, the café scene was a favourite of Ian's that he used over and over in his work.

Detail of ARMSTRONG, Ian, Roadside Cafe (2002),
(c) courtesy of James Armstrong.
The two works sit well with Barkers Road, which represents the drive into Melbourne from the Eastern suburbs. The Roadside Café is a celebration of getting out of the city and the Yankalilla landscape is the homage to the South Australian coastline that he grew to love.

ARMSTRONG, Ian, Barkers Rd (1977), colour woodcut, 
(c) courtesy of the artist and Town Hall Gallery.
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Dialect: Works from the Town Hall Gallery Collection is open until Sunday 6 March, 2016, and also features other wonderful Australian artists such as Fred Williams, Helen Maudsley and Eric Thake.

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Richard C. Lambert said...
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