Local Artist Works Wonders With Salvaged Aluminum
Phoenix artist John Albert Armstrong works wonders with salvaged aluminum, his material of choice for everything from printmaking to painting to sculpture.
By Paula M. Bodah | Photography by Steve Craft
The aluminum plate held a story, told in scuffs and scratches. An architect friend of John Albert Armstrong’s had come across it and given it to him, knowing the Phoenix-based artist prefers to use salvaged metal for his printmaking. “I never use new aluminum,” Armstrong says. “There’s a certain history to a plate when it’s found.”
The question was, what story lay hidden in this particular piece of metal? Armstrong found his answer on a trip to Iceland. “I had no idea what the plate was going to turn into until I went there,” he recalls. “I came back and looked at it again and said, ‘Oh, this is what it is.’”
The result is a series of monoprints with names such as, “Tectonic Plate,” “Winter Ice” and “Mysterious Light Sky.” Viewed in a group, the pieces feel hypnotic with their restrained palette of black and white and a range of pastels that suggest ice, water and the sky at sunset or when the northern lights are blazing overhead. Certain shapes—some the result of the plate’s existing scratches, others created by the artist through a combination of transparent and opaque inks, mylar cutouts and collage materials—appear in every print. In one, horizontal lines hint at a sheet of ice, in another, the horizon. Irregular triangles could be mountain peaks or chunks of ice.
Aluminum is Armstrong’s favorite material, whether he’s engaged in printmaking, sculpture or painting. The walls of his Phoenix studio are populated with his striking abstract paintings on aluminum. Texture and color are equally important elements in these pieces. In “Ballet” he created his abstract figures with tape, stencils and printer’s ink in black and a bold golden-yellow. Where the bare metal is exposed, he added both color and texture by abrading the metal with scouring pads and sandpaper of varying coarseness, rubbing in different directions and making elliptical shapes here and there. As a viewer moves past the work, or as the light changes throughout the day, the aluminum reflects the changes and silvery shapes subtly alter their color, giving the art a sense of motion.
“Motion is sort of a constant theme in John’s work,” says art curator/dealer John Reyes, a longtime friend to Armstrong. “Throughout all his media, you feel motion and intensive energy. That’s who he is, and it gets transferred into his artwork.”
Armstrong’s energy isn’t reserved solely for his art. In fact, for a number of years he devoted his time to promoting the work of other artists. After earning his MFA from the University of Montana in 1970, he became director of the Yellowstone Art Center in his hometown of Billings, Montana. Not far away, in the town of Roundup, the reclusive artist Lee Steen was creating his eccentric sculptures made with scavenged cottonwood and found pieces such as coffee cans and car parts. “I bought a bunch of his sculptures for almost nothing and had an exhibition that I set up to look like his house and yard,” Armstrong says.
Steen died not long after, and Armstrong set about preserving his work, much of which now lives in the permanent collection of the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls, Montana. “It was probably one of the most important things I’ve done in my life,” he says about the exhibition.
Armstrong came to Arizona to head up the fledgling Scottsdale Center for the Arts, where he continued his focus on recognizing the work of lesser-known artists. Julie Sasse, chief curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, was a grad student at Arizona State University at the time. “John was always really supportive of local artists and interested in showing under-recognized and emerging artists,” she recalls. “He showed local, national and international artists who are now iconic.” Among them, she says, were Philip Pearlstein and Louise Nevelson, as well as artists closer to home, including Suzanne Klotz and Ashley Miller. “There is a truth about giving being rewarding,” Armstrong says. “I really enjoyed promoting other artists.”
These days, Armstrong spends his time happily immersed in his own work. “I had a mentor once who told me to try something new every day,” he says. “That’s what I do. I see myself as an inventor. I just keep exploring. I need to create.”
Artist: John Albert Armstrong, Phoenix, johnalbertarmstrong.com