David Armitage : A Decade of Colour


David Armitage : A Decade of Colour

Tasmanian-born, Sussex-based painter David Armitage celebrates the culmination of a decade of work with an exhibition at Eastbourne’s Birley Centre 28th March – 26th April. We interrupted his recent antipodean travels with a barrage of questions…

 David Armitage, Pacific Icon

David Armitage, Pacific Icon

We last saw you in the magazine exhibiting at the Chiddingly Festival last summer. Tell us about developing your work since then.

My work develops either by a process of refinement and/or a total reworking in an ‘all or nothing’ approach. A painting is only as good as its weakest part, and this problem has to be addressed. Even on a 3 or 4 metre canvas there can be tiny areas of colour that do not work.

A wholesale re-working is more problematic. Success is rare but not unknown. Failure can involve a lingering death, but this can be circumvented by the barbecue process. That never fails.

The exhibition at the Birley Centre is a retrospective of your last ten years as a painter. Has ‘that which inspires you’ changed at all during that time?

My view of painting has not changed, but it has taken rather longer to realise than I would have liked. I am attempting to create self-contained worlds which may or may not have anything to do with this one. One hopes they give pleasure and can sustain repeated viewing.

The proposition is simple: produce something that is intellectually irrefutable but looks like it has been painted in 5 minutes at White Heat… Or… it comes down to four little words: “Wow, look at that”.

You listen to music while you paint. How does that help with your creativity and which composers do you prefer?

The power of music ‘that to which all art aspires’ is potent indeed. A childhood memory, I find it indispensable. By music I mean the so called ‘classical tradition’ which, for me at least, stretches from Gregorian chant through to my fellow Tasmanian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who died last year. If I could produce work that has the same effect on other people as the music of Anton Bruckner has on me, that would be wondrous indeed.

I sometimes give my paintings musical titles.

 David Armitage, Aurora

David Armitage, Aurora

You are often described as a ‘colourist’. Does this label bother you at all? Do you find it somewhat limiting? Compared to your homeland of Tasmania with its vibrant colours, do you find Sussex less appealing as an artist?

The term ‘colourist’ is something to which I have always aspired. It is a magical world and certainly not limiting in that it accommodates other things. There is no doubt that the vibrancy of light and colour, and the space of the southern hemisphere will live with me forever.

Sussex is certainly different and more subtle, but as I am not a landscape painter, I find both equally enjoyable.

How do you decide on a title for a piece of work? Is it pre-determined or does it evolve with the painting?

I have no idea of what the title of a painting will be when I start work. This eventually emerges from a dialogue with the painting, not the least of which is the recognition of the importance of ‘Accident’ and how it can be a godsend.

So it goes. Sometimes the painting suggests developments, sometimes me. When things go well, and we sing from the same hymn sheet, peace and light prevails. If the painting sulks, I can always threaten the barbecue card.

 David Armitage, Gethsemane

David Armitage, Gethsemane

Do you have any views on the intellectualisation of art? What are your views on the Turner Prize or ‘modern’ or ‘conceptual’ art?

Ah yes, intellectualisation, conceptual and all the rest. This development, now so old as to be academic and conventional, is diametrically opposed to my work as a painter. Why? What concerns me is wholly visual and nothing else. Once the conceptual wagon gets rolling the visual ‘soul’ has to be replaced by something. That is, of course, words. Endless bloody words.

An inverse relationship is immediately established… the less there is of visual impetus the more words you get. Not just any old words – attempts at profundity and meaning produce outpourings of such hilarious verbosity and mindless pretension that, to one group of students at least, side-splitting laugher accompanied my readings. We have art-speak in fact. This accompanies exhibitions in ‘theme parks’ all around the globe. ‘My pile of packing cases, rubbish, or table and chairs or endless acrylic boxes filled with funny things’ can produce an Everest of tosh.

Think of anything, make sure you are ‘exploring’ and Bingo!!

Of course, what the words are about is covered so much better by those whose rightful business it is – that is journalists, anthropologists, sociologists, political commentators, historians.

Maybe they could produce paintings instead? It’s about as mindless. The Turner Prize… I find it rather like sucking boiled sweets – one every now and then is fine.

Also a good cure for insomnia.

You have spoken about various influences on your work, places of worship and pilgrimage amongst them and the concept of mortality. Do you have any specific religious or spiritual belief?

Re spirituality, I am not a born-again anything. I simply respond to things that I find deeply felt and moving. Going to another world. This can manifest itself in many ways… obviously music, but also painting, poetry, literature. I am also attracted to places of worship – from the glories of Chartres Cathedral to the humble Indian roadside shrines. I have no idea why… it just happens.

 David Armitage, Guardian

David Armitage, Guardian

Finally, tell me about your goals as an artist. How do you judge success aesthetically and materially?

Goal as an artist? Henri Matisse will suffice. “I have worked all my life in order that people might say, ‘It seems so simple to do'”. Or “WOW, LOOK AT THAT”.

As to material success, a cursory glance at my art account would reveal that in this area I have signally failed. If I had been making cakes I would have been shut down decades ago. I would make RBS look like a good investment.

Yet, I am in good company. Many of the gods in my pantheon also belong to this exclusive club. Mozart, Wagner, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh…

Aesthetically, one relies on one’s peers, but time, of course, is the supreme arbiter. Apart from painting, over the years I have illustrated a series of children’s books written by my wife, Ronda.

The oldest of these is approaching its 40th birthday, others in the series are also getting towards middle age. I hope my paintings will be around for that length of time and then some.

Of course death can be a great career move, but a risky card to play.


David Armitage at work 'down under'

David Armitage at work ‘down under’

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