Art Review: Martha Armstrong: A Big Deal in a Little Town

Hatfield resident Martha Armstrong is exhibiting at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton. Her collection of paintings, Friends and Family, is currently on display in the back gallery of the Pleasant Street venue.

The back gallery at Oxbow is very small and intimate, longer than it is wide, white with a utilitarian feel. One might be inclined to think that it’s reserved for “lesser” talents. That, of course, isn’t true; artist-members of the Oxbow rotate showings between the larger front gallery and the small back gallery throughout the year. The size of the gallery, therefore, is in no way indicative of an artist’s stature.

It’s comical, nevertheless, to juxtapose Martha Armstrong’s career to the tiny space that embraces what can only be described as one star in her constellation of work. Armstrong’s impressive portfolio dates back to the 1970s and there’s no dearth of creativity.

But as New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith says, Armstrong “has worked for years in relative obscurity” and her achievements are “underappreciated.” So perhaps that small space mirrors Armstrong’s career; she’s busy flying high under the radar.

Armstrong trained at Smith College and the Rhode Island School of Design. She is an abstract realist. It takes tremendous skill and self-discipline to master abstract realism, and along with geometric shapes, she masterfully uses color and light to create order out of potential chaos.

Friends and Family feels like a very personal collection, not because of the title, but in part because Armstrong traditionally paints landscapes. Those familiar with her work may be surprised by Friends and Family, for it is a collection of portraits. This radical departure from the bounty of paintings she’s produced in her 40-plus years as an artist is a pleasing one and well worth viewing.

In her portraits, Armstrong’s peculiar style translates effortlessly; she finds the right balance between loose interpretation and making the object identifiable. In some cases, there’s much less of an abstract quality and more notes of cubism.

Regardless, all of her work has an Georgia O’Keefe-ian feel with a dash of Cezanne, but her technique is uniquely American. Both her neutral color palette and her subjects land her squarely on the continuum of American painters.

There’s a calming element to Armstrong’s works which echos O’Keefe, and lends a feminine softness to hard lines and even to what is not meant to be beautiful.

“When I’m painting, I don’t think about painting. When I’m painting, I’m painting.” That’s what Martha Armstrong said in a lecture filmed at the Oxbow Gallery in 2011. And it seems as though she’s been eager to be at the business of painting than anything else.

Friends and Family by Martha Armstrong at the Oxbow Gallery, 275 Pleasant St., Northampton.

Author: Gina Beavers

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