“Thank you for letting me take over your space for a little while”, says Michael Armitage. He is seated next to Owen Martin, the curator of his solo show ‘Accomplice’ on display at the Norval Foundation in Westlake. The artist’s modesty is genuine. He grows more likable as the conversation continues.
Three things interest Armitage – abstraction, figuration, landscape. Each factor is fused with the next, because in Armitage’s paintings the fudge is everything. The body is an environment, the human an extension of earth. The look of his painting – its tone, feel, texture – signal this conviction. Armitage is inspired by art not as a mirror of life – its reflection – but as an expression of life’s fecundity. It is paint as matter, life as matter – that matters.
In contrasting Western (colonial) representations of the African continent – its people and places – with an African (specifically Kenyan) interpretation, Armitage notes that the former constructs an idea – the way a person or place looks through a detached eye – while the latter operates through feeling – the way a person or location thrives inside a murk. This distinction is crucial. This is because Armitage is not interested in documenting or re-presenting the idea of African experience, but with expressing its amorphous ever-changing animus.
When Owen Martin probes the artist’s technique – how and why Armitage’s paintings look the way they do – the artist tells us that a key source of inspiration is video stills. It is moments sliced out of time, blurred, in motion, that allow him the freedom to interpret events. In the case of the cycle of paintings on display, they concern Kenya’s 2017 elections, and, in particular, the challenge posed and expressed by those involved in the opposition party. It is the reaction to an oppressive power that interests the artist, and, more significantly, the mood of the opposition, its effect, attitude and style of resistance.
If Armitage’s paintings are agitated – a restless churning of feeling and movement – it is not because he is interested in a reactive state of protest, but because he is moved by the desires that animate individuals and groups. To suppose, therefore, that these are archetypal expressions of resistance is to miss the mark. Rather, what matters, and what gives Armitage’s paintings their compelling power, is the artist’s ability to signal change – bodily, historically – through human feeling. Never illustrative, always implicated within the situation he strives to capture, his paintings, while focused on a particular political event, are wholly given to its Dionysian overdrive.
Bodies ripple and twist, the impact is always gestural. German Expressionism is a key inspiration in this regard, notes Armitage. And as the artist, Dave Brits, points out to me, this gestural quality, the paintings’ ‘aliveness’, is at work as much in the underpainting as it is on their ever-shifting surfaces. Peter Doig, Gauguin, Goya, El Greco, are the other sources that come to mind in my conversation with Brits. But it is Marlene Dumas who, for me, seems to be a greater influence. When I ask Armitage if this is the case the artist smiles knowingly and appreciatively. He adores the inadvertent way that Dumas paints, “The way she makes everything look unrepeatable.” Instantaneity is critical. Flux the defining condition. Nothing in the frame is ever settled or composed. Rather, it is the vivacity of the event, the churn and gnash of life, that exercises and animates the artist.
If Armitage’s figures are never objectified, if they are part and parcel of an electrified force-field, this is because of his disinterest in, and disgust with, representation. If, as the artist notes, the Kenyan landscape, when painted by locals, appears “like another person in the setting,” it is because of an anthropomorphic take. A human being, a place, forge a morphing continuum. This insight is not peculiar to ‘indigenous Kenyan art,’ it is vital in painting the world over that embraces the sensorial in the most inclusive sense as vital in a moment of apprehension. These, therefore, are not objective sightings nor historical tableau. If the viewer’s eye fails to neatly parse a scene, it is because Armitage thrusts the eye hither and thither. At every point, in every nook, the scene shivers and dances. The key source for its electricity lies in the fudged mark-making. Lines are broken and blurred. Colours judder beside each other. Dissolution challenges solution. Nothing, notes Armitage, is anatomically correct. All of which, the artist adds, is impacted by “one horrendously small eureka moment” – the innovative decision to change the very ‘ground’ on which he paints.
Armitage does not paint on canvas – a distinctively Western surface – but on Lubugo, a bark pulp. Created by removing a thin layer of bark from the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis), Lubugo is then beaten with a series of different mallets to form a thin, flexible material. That this material is also used for burial shrouds and ceremonial clothing is of striking import. Ritual, and death, ask us to reconsider the basis – ground and reason – for making. Are Armitage’s paintings about Thanatos? Is death a core dimension to why art exists? Is the life his paintings convey – its animus – inescapably connected to loss and grief? Perhaps. I am not certain. The paintings are emphatically gestural. Wholly immersed in aspirational yearnings.
Armitage has spent years – since 2010 – mastering a painting technique that could accommodate and fully engage with the matter that is its ground, its canvas. “The fissures and irregularities of the stretched Lubugo are incorporated into the texture and composition of his paintings, creating a dialogue between the artist’s practice and the cultural-historical meanings of the cloth,” Owen Martin notes. That these fissures and irregularities veer into the act of painting itself – in its underpainting and rough quivering surface – reveals a continuum between the ground and its extension. At no point is there ever any repose. Instead, what we encounter are enchanting difficulties, seismic breaks, intermittencies, spillages, vagaries of feeling, alarums, shouts – in short, painting’s great pleasures and great gestures.