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Dirty Dolly Mummy - By Mike Armstrong
Questions & Answers for Mike Armstrong



Where do you do your work?


In a studio in an old office building in the centre of Timaru.

When and how did you first become interested in art?

Looking through encyclopedias as a kid. I responded to the range illustrations, from Greek statuary to prints of paintings to anthropological illustrations. As a kid I found the diversity of imagery stimulating. My father use to draw and my mother was positive.


How long have you been making art?

I first exhibited around 1969. I’ve always made art.

Do you work from life, or from photographs or from imagination?

Contemporary practice allows for a great diversity of input, painting can no longer afford to be exclusive. I am always observing, looking, seeing in the environment around me or magazines, anything at hand. I carry a camera with me everywhere and will just photograph the incongruous, the interesting or stimulating — much the same as a writer writes in a notebook.


What moves you most in life, either to inspire or upset you?

Politics upsets me.

Which is more important to you, the subject of your painting, or the way it is executed?

Subject and execution interact. Making paintings has always been primary for me. Execution is about communication.

How do you feel when you are letting your emotions loose on the canvas?

Across the years I have become more careful in my practice. You become more aware that what you put in does not automatically  reflect in a work; is not automatically accessible to a viewer: this is what I mean by ‘becoming more careful’.  My appreciation of the art of painting continues to be enlarged .


How did you discover your talent for art?

I was doing what I wanted to be doing, it was other people and their appreciation of the work that gave me the sense that what I was doing had a life beyond me. Other people’s acknowledgement is important, it is what keeps you going.


What motivates you?

I love painting. In order to paint, in order to survive as a painter, you have to achieve some success. I do have ambition for the work itself, this provides energy. 





What technique do you use?

As many as I can: spray painting, dribbling paint, glazing, layering, over-painting and Expressionist application of paint. I use rag and brush application and techniques for removing paint: sanding, rubbing and washing off. I use stencils. I use traditional shading to create form and engage with values of colour, tone and line. I draw with paint and use texturing material i.e. textural filler.


Do you prefer a perfect smooth technique or a more energetic expressive technique and why?

Both. Expressionism has the fallacy of self-expression. As a painter I feel I have access to any technique.

Why is your work so ugly? or so pretty? or so academic?

These judgments are very subjective. My work is often described as ugly — it deals with ugly things but I don’t set out to make them ugly.


Does any of your painting have a deeper meaning?

I don’t think there is a deeper meaning there; art is a business-like pursuit and my aim is to convey ideas. I try to stimulate people. Often the subject is not cheerful but I use cheerful colours, there is a tension there. But I don’t set out to put anything spiritual into the work, anything metaphysical.
I’m not trying to make too much of a statement because life itself is not cut and dried, life in fact is very messy. There is no one truth, no single absolute about what is real.


What is more important; content or technique?

Both. They are near equal. Content and technique draw together as I go on. I haven’t always used form to my own advantage or not convincingly. Painters need to be convincing.





What or who inspired you to paint?

The discovery of painting as a child was like the discovery of a second language, a separate and private language. This is what initially inspired me to paint. Once you have committed to the path of being a painter this language ultimately becomes a shared language.


What do you think is the most important influence in your art?

Going to art school was a primary influence: the experience of having an ongoing conversation with tutors and other students. At art school I realized what is contemporary and discovered the relevance of life and experience in relation to this. I was surviving cancer at the time when I made the decision to go to art school. It was a rebirth for me. Nonetheless art is always changing and you can’t hold on to any one influence.


What other artists work has influenced your own art?

I have been described as eclectic: there is a wide range of influence and appropriations. Among recent contemporary artists whom I feel important I would include the work of: Robert Gober, Peter Booth, Juan Davila, Paula Rego, Rene Magritte, Neo Rausch, Sasmal, Althoft, Muntean & Rosenblum. A connecting line through the work of Bill Hammond, Jeffery Harris and William Kenthridge is the use of water as an emotional metaphor: water flowing through or over figures. A sense of influence goes back to the work of Sutton vis a vis the formal elements of composition.





What advice would you give to an emerging artist?

Don’t give up your day job! It is a real balancing act between earning a living and having time for your art. It is hard. Freemarket reforms reduce the choices for aspiring artists. I did ordinary part time jobs for many years — there was a period when it was possible to survive this way. The number of commitments you have is a limitation.


What are your feelings on self taught vs trained painters?

I am fine about both. Society/humanity needs to keep its options open. The freemarket likes to have many artists to choose from.

Out of all the career choices, do you think your career choice was a good one?

Definitely, absolutely. I don’t think of it as an option; in fundamental way there is no choice.

What do you enjoy about art?

Many, many aspects. I love being in my studio on my own making art. I love hanging exhibitions and I enjoy openings. I like selling art and having it go off to other people.  I appreciate recognition; I enjoy receiving other peoples responses to my work.


Are any of your family members artists?

My wife, Glenys Parry, teaches art. I have a nephew who trained in art and now works in advertising in London. My son loves drawing and painting.


What exhibition in your career stands out for you?

My exhibition at Hocken Library Gallery, 1984, the year I held the Francis Hodgkins Fellowship. The gallery was just a wonderful space and I was the centre of attention. It goes back to what I spoke of earlier, this kind of recognition is important.


What else do you do besides paint?

Teach. I like home life: I do housework and cook. I help my sons with their homework. I read: fiction, philosophy, art books.


Do you work certain hours each day or only when you are inspired to work?

I work when I can.
Whenever there is time, I paint.




Where do you feel art is going?

I have no idea. I think it has probably got to a point where something will change. Painting was exiled for conceptual art, sculpture and design. From the 1960s on painting was seen as conventional, the domain of a particular generation, it became very unpopular. In a progression of generations painters were weeded out; there was a re evaluation of the role of galleries and art schools.
This process ostensibly made art more democratic: instead of painting being seen as the sole high art, design and sculptural took their place along side painting and conceptual art became privileged. Now painting is having a return.


What is the role of the artist in society?

Integral. Art needs society and society needs art; one can’t happen without the other.  Art speaks in another language, it is an intervention and society needs this.


What is the place of your work in society?

Minor. All I try to do is say what I can and participate in the flow. It is all just a flow.

For you what makes that a great artwork?

I can look at a supposedly ordinary work and receive enormous enjoyment from it. Great art is in fact a personal matter; a ‘little’ work can say something great. Maybe the whole idea of great art has gone; to some degree it is a matter of chance, of gaining attention. Looking historically there are of course many art works that are just mind blowing: when an artist can get ideas and techniques working together. Tremendous ambition and the competitive drive can make wonderful art. But there are other conditions in which people can make wonderful art.