New York, Jul. 2014: Zachary Armstrong welcomed summer to the new Robert Blumenthal Gallery in East Hampton with a lush-valley-on-an-island type of feeling, a tropical playpen for adults. Four canvases revealed the pattern spread across the artist’s childhood bed sheets: friendly primary-colored dinosaurs and shrubs. During the opening the bed sheets came to life with an assortment of reptiles—boas, pythons, lizards, and turtles—laying on and walking around plants spread across the gallery in a young boy’s sprightly dream materialized.
Armstrong, however, hails from a place far from this. Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, while working construction jobs he would imagine that he was building a sculpture, to “think about it like it’s art.” It helped the days pass. By consistently flipping through literature on artists who share a similar relationship to hands-on creation—among them Duchamp and Gober—he studied art. In our interview we discuss the lightswitch moment that made him become an artist, the limbo between childhood and adulthood, and the decline of his America.
Zachary Armstrong, Dinos, Installation view of Bedsheets, 2014, Acrylic on canvas; Courtesy of the artist
Stephanie Berzon: This past weekend you had your debut solo show at the Robert Blumenthal Gallery in East Hampton called Dinos. Why not call it Dinosaurs?
Zachary Armstrong: I have been making these paintings for about a year and half with no real plans of showing them. The longer they sat around the studio the more my eleven-year-old son and my friends just referred to them as "Dinos." I usually refer to the larger full print paintings as "Bedsheets" and the smaller ones as "Pillowcases" because originally that's what they were. "Dinos" was a good name for the show because it's a much more playful word than Dinosaurs and the paintings are supposed to be playful.
SB: Did you make art as a child?
ZA: Yes, that's all I did as a kid. I took it very seriously. My dad was an art teacher and he would come home with giant rolls of paper and all kinds of good stuff. He taught me how important art was to the world and I think I understood that even at super young age.
SB: I understand that at twenty-one years old a transformative accident led you to take art more seriously. Could you walk me through this slowly?
ZA: I've always been passionate about making art and I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life but having a child at the age of eighteen, it doesn't leave a lot of time to make art or go to art school. I had to work a lot of construction jobs for long hours to pay the bills. Long story short, I was in a really bad car wreck, got tossed out of the car—crazy. It made me just question what I was doing and made me realize how short life is. I thought that if I died right then and all I had left behind was working on some rich tasteless asshole's new kitchen, it wouldn't have been a good representation of my true love. So I switched from working the horrible hours and only worked odd jobs, pretty much just concentrating on artwork.
SB: You have a very broad body of work for being so young—from the abstract (Seconds, White Wood Chips), to a flower still life, to painted reproductions of the Morton Salt Girl. Why not stick to one genre or style?
ZA: It's just naturally how I work and think. I can't help it. I would lose my mind if I just painted flowers or stuck to one thing. All my favorite artists have always been all over the place. I don't have the patience—too many ideas.
SB: Who are your favorite artists?
ZA: God so many great artists, Picasso is definitely my all time fave. Lately I’ve been really into Valentin Carron, David Ireland, Peter Doig, Fischli & Weiss. Way to many to name.
Zachary Armstrong, Elder-Beerman Paintings, 2010-2014, Mixed media; Courtesy of the artist
SB: Do you see the repetition in some of your pieces—including the paintings exhibited in Dinos—as obsessive by means of a childlike escape or as an escape for you now into childhood?
ZA: I do love to repeat paintings. If I like a painting, I will generally make multiples of the same one. As far as the escape... I'm not really sure. I don't think it's an escape; I think it's more of a way to draw from good childhood memories. And in a way, I've always been a kid but I also had to turn into an adult really fast. I was a kid when I had a kid. But having crazy responsibility overnight pretty much left me in an adult/child limbo.
SB: You have various paintings with the Elder-Beerman logo on it, a department store chain based in the middle of America. How do you think Midwestern culture affects your work?
ZA: I think that living in the Midwest affects my work in a lot of different ways. The Elder-Beerman logo represents home and life in the Midwest to me for sure. I hate to say that you draw inspiration from the world around you but it's a given. There are just certain things that immediately remind me of home, so that's why I try to use them in my work.
SB: Would you consider moving your home elsewhere?
ZA: I always had this thought "I have to live in NYC in order to make any money, to get any attention" but the more time I spend in the city the more I realize how good I have it at home. Dayton is cheap, with huge spaces. I can drive my truck to the hardware store, load up and start working in no time. In New York that’s an all day affair. But most importantly my son lives here. I would never leave him. Cooking breakfast for Jackson in the morn’ is the best part of the day.
SB: Do you see those paintings as defining your own America or capturing it in a way that Ed Ruscha did in his first artistic book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations? The photographs he took were sentimental to him and to perhaps whoever worked there or lived nearby. He really caught the rise of modern American life with the car. Meanwhile you have dedicated your work to a loss of something familiar and American to you, since Elder-Beerman is going out of business. What is the story you are trying to tell us?
ZA: Absolutely. My work definitely defines "my America." The Elder-Beerman works are only familiar to people in my part of the country. I was amazed that anyone else had taken interest in them actually. Where I live, a majority of the places are going out of business. So as Ruscha captured the start of a new movement, I am working with the decline. And not because I am interested in it all falling apart or the sob story, but simply because that's what is around me.
SB: This one could make all New York artists jealous. How big is your studio? Walk me through a day of you in it.
ZA: Hahaha! I never thought I had a big space until I saw the sizes of different studios my friends had in the city. I am very fortunate to have a house in Ohio that doubles as a work space. I love the house and have been working out of it for nine plus years. The majority of the house is all studio whether I like it or not; it gets a bit out of hand. But I love to live and work in the same place. I also have another workshop downtown that is pretty large. All of my tools are there so I make the stretcher bars and frames there. It's nice to be able to take a break from painting and go down to the workshop. Two very different environments. I generally wake up and paint at home during the day, usually having at least three different paintings that need to be worked on. In the evening I go to the workshop and cut wood until late, then come home when I get tired. It's a very nice little routine.
Zachary Armstrong, Untitled, 2014, Acrylic and oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist
SB: Could you ever see your work entering the third dimension?
ZA: I don't know what the fuck that means. I'm not a hippie.
SB: Ha! Would you ever work outside of painting, whether in sculpture or installation—perhaps in the realm of toys? What does the future hold for Zachary Armstrong?
ZA: I love sculpture and have been making more lately, My dad taught sculpture so I’ve always been around it. The problem with sculpture is the space it takes to make it and store it. For the future? Just try and stay as busy as possible—getting some projects made that I’ve wanted to get done for years, but was never financially able to do. It sounds like there’ll be a studio in New York for a few months, which will be nice.
ArtSlant would like to thank Zachary Armstrong for his assistance in making this interview possible.