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ART REVIEW : Armstrong’s Lush Works Ease the Soul

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mary Armstrong’s beautiful, soul-satisfying paintings transcribe wonder. They translate a meditative reverie of nature into lush patterns and luminous colors. Neither profound nor pretentious, they simply speak in a deeply emotional, sensitive tone, genuine and affirming.

Though Armstrong’s paintings, at the Felicita Foundation for the Arts, make no such claim directly, they do make a good case for a feminist, or more specifically, a female aesthetic. A litany of traditionally female qualities is embedded in these works, from the fertile, life-giving capacity women share with the earth, to the mysterious sensuality that (in art and literature especially) has linked women to the aqueous world.

Armstrong, based in Boston, presents 10 years of work in the show, “Counting Souls,” most of it inspired by her childhood on a Connecticut farm and her more recent years living part time in a cabin on Maine’s coast. Trees, flowers, water, wind and atmosphere take center stage in these subtle dramas.

In her early 1980s paintings, Armstrong worked along figurative, symbolic lines, framing an image of a small, castle-like house with scattered images of drinking glasses, horses and energized dashes of paint.

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Some of the landscape images, too, are anchored in representational space, with trees and cliffs clearly recognizable. But these views evolve over the years into visions, less concrete, more intuitive.

“Hermit’s Heart” and “What I Thought I Saw” both occupy the shifting terrain between imaging and imagining. Armstrong bases both on conventional scenes--a cave and cliffs sloping to the water’s edge in the first case, and a grove of slender trees in the second--but she skews contours and depiction of depth until both paintings take on the nuanced quality of dreams.

In “Hermit’s Heart,” a pocket of soft, clay-brown cliffs doesn’t blend into the surrounding pale green terrain but floats within it, as if a discrete glimpse into a separate, internal realm that coexists with the other. And, in “What I Thought I Saw,” Armstrong makes the luminous pink of the sky as intense as the buzzing aqua of the tree trunks, so that the whole reads as a glorious spectacle of stripes rather than as a hierarchically rendered composition with the subject in the foreground and the background beyond.

The landscape-derived images of the last five years or so dismiss most of the trappings of conventional perspective and instead fill their wood panels with atmosphere and mood as much as with actual branches and flowers. Some feel like tempestuous storms of color, while others appear tranquil, celebratory meditations on nature.

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* Felicita Foundation for the Arts, 247 S. Kalmia St., Escondido, through Jan. 18. Hours are Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., closed Thanksgiving.


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