‘in perpetuum,’ Beth Diane Armstrong’s Young Artist Award exhibition at the National Arts Festival, draws lines of growth, visually exploring life’s continuum. At first glance the exhibition evokes a geometric organism, with lines of growth, of stagnation or of regression. Armstrong admits openly that there is a substantial insecurity that runs beneath her work. We are not looking at a final concept but a work in progress, a process of back and forth, of distance and proximity, of minimalism and monumentalism, pushing of physical and mental boundaries.
Embracing a design and craft tradition, Armstrong is concerned with the precision of the object. This tends to waver between a celebration of materiality and an impression of coldness or dispassion. In person, Armstrong is anything but dispassionate, and sees little boundary between art and herself. She says, ‘I don’t know how to separate me as a being in this world, in process, from my work.’ During her talk organised by the Lucid Lunchbox (a series of conversations facilitated by Rhodes University Fine Arts Students), she reveals an honesty and generosity and a sense of massive dedication. The resulting pieces might not do justice to the emotions and psyche that have sustained them through years long creative processes. Nevertheless, the art speaks for itself.
Navigating between sculpture, drawing and video, the exhibition aims at capturing the continuous patterns of natural forms of life, suggesting an alternative to a systematic or linear approach to evolution. Armstrong’s work is inspired by fractals and rhizomes. Her inspiration assumes a sequence of patterns that is regular but not predictable in shape. The room is rectangular, forcing a sense of depth that dissolves in the background video in perpetuum (2017). On the right wall adjacent to the entry, Approach to Parallels-B (2016) and four prints of a complex drawing revealing a tentacular creature (Harbinger, 2016) are carefully disposed. In dialogue with the former artwork stands Approach to Parallels-A (2016), as a reminder that her pieces relate to one another and form a conceptual body of work. This first impression acts as a statement that Armstrong can work on a large or small scale. She describes her smaller sculptures as more representative whereas the bigger ones are more molecular, with a composition that takes the form of dots and dashes. Her aesthetic that seldom feels confined, with her grand steel sculptures seem to be part of a larger puzzle. They appear in a state of potential imbrication, an effect conveyed through sharp and flat incisions.
Although confronted with fragments, their integrality does not alter their autonomy or self-sustenance as exemplified by the central piece of the exhibition. Placed on a crocodile-like pedestal, the sculpture resembles two saturated nodes formed by an accumulation of short poles, both traversed by evasive diagonal long poles. These lines are open and infinite where the nodes are in tension. There is no arbitrariness here, turmoil is measured, becoming somehow gracious.
In the back of the room, a tree and its roots lie under the spotlight. Both pieces display an organic delicacy, ‘a movement to density and looseness,’ as she describes it. These two smaller sculptures are more immediate and accessible to the casual viewer. Their manageable size and representation balance the space in a way that reflects her concept. Browsing through the catalogue, the sight of pieces not included in this show is as delightful as perplexing. ‘in perpetuum’ is a windshield that discloses Beth Diane Armstrong’s conceptual and visionary approach. However strong it may be, some of the presented pieces – alluding to the two external ones at the entry of the Settlers National Monument – do not succeed in emotionally engaging the viewer in their bare function of artworks. As much as emotions and mental states have fuelled her project, we are not quite moved. Moving around and scrutinising her large-scale steel sculptures, we are faced with a technical feat that an inclusion of some of her other works would have sublimed. The Monument’s architecture and near surroundings do not enhance the intrinsic quality of those two sculptures.
A whole wall of the exhibition room is covered by hundreds of small and simple drawings that attest attempts of grounding an evasive, abysmal, unruly yet methodical sensitivity. This shift in tone, reveals ‘in perpetuum’ as an open, unrestricted and incomplete rendering. ‘It is ok’, she says, ‘to be a bit vulnerable.’