Inner world: the first major solo exhibition from Beth Diane Armstrong says her sources of inspiration are becoming more abstract.  Picture: SUPPLIED
Inner world: the first major solo exhibition from Beth Diane Armstrong says her sources of inspiration are becoming more abstract. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg is presenting in perpetuum Beth Diane Armstrong’s first major solo exhibition and the first cohesive body of work the Standard Bank Young Artist has put together since 2011.

"All themes in this exhibition can be tied into the title: ideas of infinity — things not having a beginning or end — and being in process," she says. "Many sculptures in this show, and historically, look like they are parts of a greater whole; that the structure could extend further into space. There’s a zooming in and out effect — what’s small is big and what’s big is small — and imagery is repeated in different scales."

The concept came after a fair amount of creating. And while the work and ideas happened in a relay of sorts, it began with her hands. It’s this conceptual and thematic sense of process that makes it impossible for her to separate herself from her art.

Beth Diane Armstrong. Picture: SUPPLIED
Beth Diane Armstrong. Picture: SUPPLIED

"In a sense, this exhibition is a snapshot in time of me as a being in process," she says. "There’s no real beginning or end to things; not in any particular artwork or in the greater concept. This show is not one consolidated concept that I thought up and executed. There’s work that came before it and work that will come after it that could have been in this show," she says.

Armstrong urges viewers to pay attention to the curatorial elements in the exhibition, pointing out that curator Emma van der Merwe has given much consideration to lighting, shadows, reflections and placement. She encourages viewing the works in silence to appreciate the play of elements without the bustle and distraction of other people.

"Many of my sculptures are more abstracted and thus their interpretations are open-ended. I hope that viewers have equally personalised and open-ended experiences viewing the show. I hope viewers allow themselves mental and emotional space to be open to the experience. And I hope that viewers will have a response that they’ve never had before."

Armstrong aims to present audiences with "subject matter, scale and relation that is different" so that they can engage with their own reactions, feelings and thoughts. She believes there are no right or wrong reactions. Even responding with agitation or annoyance is to be moved.

"Because the subject matter is not easily pinned down, the audience is left with themselves," she says. "This is a poignant metaphor for life as so many things are asking of us to engage with ourselves. But how often do we have the space to understand how we are feeling?" The answer is not often enough. And yet even though many people don’t take the time to quiet their minds and be in the present moment, Armstrong considers the beauty of sculpture is its ability to get us to examine how we feel "physically in space". This introspective and sometimes visceral consideration is a fountain for ideas.

On a physical, emotional and mental level, I’m attracted to and move through this life in density and looseness

"I draw my inspiration from a number of sources and most of it is introverted," Armstrong says. "I do look at other art, but I can’t say I find any of it directly inspirational. Instead, I find it confusing, diffusing and distracting to look at too much other art — it dilutes my own thoughts. So … I find inspiration in the things I read and listen to." Armstrong is a fan of podcasts and audiobooks on scientific, mathematical and medical topics. She also draws inspiration from how she feels in relation to the world, so much so that living in an abstracted and intense internal domain often feels busier than the "reality" outside.

"On a physical, emotional and mental level, I’m attracted to and move through this life in density and looseness," she says. "It relates to how I see and engage with things, people, relationships, my work, everything. Things can be intense and then blunt, real and then unreal. There’s an expansion and contraction, a push and pull, a coming and going, to the way I move through the world. That’s my main source of inspiration in my work."

As a young girl, Armstrong found inspiration from artists including Salvador Dali and MCEscher, whose styles she’d often incorporate into her own. As an undergraduate, she was influenced by her dreams and would recreate the strange "human-animal hybrid creatures" she encountered in her sleep. But from her master’s degree onwards, she started developing her own voice.

"There are a number of specific concepts — fractals, chaos theory, rhizomes — that have held my fascination and that I’ve drawn inspiration from over the years. These themes seem to underlie and underpin most things I do, often in subtle ways. But as my career has developed, my sources of inspiration are becoming more abstracted and more difficult to define or pin down. This is also evident in the art itself."

Due to the nature of the work, Armstrong will be travelling with the exhibition as it tours SA for a year. She will also be working on her coming solo exhibitions with Gallery Everard Read/CIRCA in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London in 2018 and 2019.

"I create something and then I can reflect on it," she says. "That thinking informs further creation…. Many times … I’ve had to trust my process of creation — that the understanding of things comes later; that my hands understand things my mind cannot; that some things cannot and should not be put into words."

• in perpetuum will be at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg from August 4 to September 30.

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