Sara Garden Armstrong
Two shores, four thousand miles apart.
At Amagansett, Long Island, the waves pulse with a measured rhythm. One wave after another breaks languidly at the hips of waders, then laps at the ankles of beachcombers standing at the shoreline's edge. The tides change so gradually, so leisurely, that the waves can lull you into a trance where it seems that time has slowed. At Brittany, on the west coast of France, the shore changes dramatically before one's eyes. Waves shatter against craggy rocks that are quickly subsumed by the ocean. The tides, which rise and drop some twenty- five feet each day, have carved cliffs into the coast over the millennia, creating one of nature's reminders that landscape and time are not necessarily measured out in human scale.
Though Amagansett and Brittany could not be more different as landscapes, both share the Atlantic and some proximity to the latitude of 45? north. Each has inspired artists for generations. Standing on their beaches can help to refine one's appreciation of American Luminism and the European tradition of the sublime. More by chance than design, Sara Garden Armstrong spent time on both beaches last year. Disentangled from the rhythms of daily life, travelers are free to give themselves over to natural rhythms, however briefly. In her travels, Armstrong took long walks on the beach, allowing herself to ponder the existential questions that shorelines inspire.
Struck by the extremes between the languor of Amagansett and the awe of Brittany, Armstrong was most impressed by the shifting landscape at her feet. Ever the artist, she used the landscape as both subject and studio - making photographs, sketches and notes on site in anticipation of the art she would make when she returned to New York. Where other eyes might have been fixated by the vistas of the ocean's horizon, Armstrong delineated the changing shoreline at her feet. First in rapidly made sketches, then in photos, she tried to record the line of water and land at precise moments. An impossible task, perhaps, but Armstrong's focus on the site where two elements meet and transform one another is not surprising, when considered in terms of her existing art.
For two decades, Armstrong has made sculptures called Airplayers that generally incorporate hand-made paper, electronic lighting and mechanical blowers. Airplayers are often mutable, breathing in and out like lungs, or shifting according to changes in their environment. These subtle actions lend mystery to the sculptures: are these organic forms based on landscape, the body, or both? How do the referents of this abstract art affect one's comprehension of its scale, which varies from the boundaries of a large book to the open space of a three-story atrium?
Returning to her Manhattan loft with drawings and slides of shorelines, Armstrong was determined to make art from the material gathered at these two beaches. Still, she was quite literally out of her element. After a career's worth of art about air, she now found herself contemplating land and sea. Her art was challenged in other fundamental ways as well. In working out her new ideas, Armstrong was soon venturing from the familiar terrain of sculpture to the largest drawings she had ever attempted, each measuring 80" by 120".
Dramatic in scale, the drawings are executed in earth tones so muted they might initially be taken for black and white. Her sketches and photos provided the visual sources, transferred to paper by such various means as free-hand drawings, airbrushed stencils and traces from projected slides. The slides might be reversed, flopped and recycled from one drawing to another - as Armstrong points out, each drawing contains some element of another. At a glance, it is difficult to discern those parts of the drawings that are based on projections or stencils from those drawn directly on paper, as Armstrong's hand is always evident in her process. Indeed, process may be Armstrong's most compelling subject, recorded in here in layers of delicate lines, overdrawings and erasures.
Collectively entitled Littorals (the word refers to that zone of shore between low and high eaches, revisiting reveries and epiphanies that are kept private but, we suspect, not unlike those that might be recalled by anyone who has walked a beach awed by the cycle of high and low tides, sunrises and sunsets. Armstrong's juxtaposition of extremes is a reminder that shorelines put us in contact with the sublime for better and worse: getting a glimpse of eternity as we recalibrate our bodies to nature's rhythms we also see mortality in our footprints that vanish in the sand within an instant.
On these existential waters, Armstrong is an able captain. Her art offers evidence enough of the sublimity of introspection, of the wisdom of contemplating the waves at your toes, of appreciating the traces of a hand on paper. In Armstrong's large drawings, these are the small, sure markings of human-scale time.
John Gibson Gallery