Meet the artist

Zachary Armstrong on Instagram, Picasso and Taqueria Mixteca

By Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: Elder-Beerman Ads, Installation view, Zachary Amrstrong: Recent Works, 2014

I’ve been following Zachary Armstrong’s work for a few years now. Self-taught and raised in an artistic family, Armstrong remembered always drawing, often creating over 20 drawings in one sitting. In fact, what makes him extraordinary as an artist is he continues to re-draw his childhood drawings as an exercise in muscle memory. He often returns to these again and again in adulthood, trying to re-capture a particular bold line or awkward angle that flowed so naturally from him as a child – because he believed he was as good an artist as he was going to be at that young age. 

That’s self-awareness. That’s confidence. And that’s pretty cool.

His love of drawing, his connection to the imagery of his youth – dinosaurs, monsters, Goodnight Moon, Hulk Hogan – and his background in carpentry inform his work. He cited the “lo-fi” style found in the work of several artists as influences. Among them, Thomas Houseago (b. 1972 Leeds, Great Britain; lives in Los Angeles, Calif.) and Joe Bradley (b. 1975, Kittery, Maine; lives New York, N.Y.); as well as German painting patriarchs Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger.

Committed to living and working in Dayton, but with work that gets more attention and sales on the East and West Coasts, Armstrong has figured out a way to challenge himself to keep evolving his practice, keep his work fresh and relevant and take advantage of working outside an art world center. About once a year for the past seven years, he takes over a raw, downtown space and transforms it into an installation of new work. Recently, these installations have caught the eye of a Los Angeles collector and several New York galleries that specialize in the work of young, contemporary artists. I caught up with him as he took over an empty space on the corner of Jefferson and Third Streets in downtown Dayton for May’s Urban Nights, which will run through June.

I see your work table here in the midst of about 50 works – many new, I think – some hung, some leaning against the wall and this huge stack here in the middle of the floor. What is it with you taking over a space?

I like thinking about this as a working space. It’s easy to move around a lot of my big work – I work in two other spaces, my home studio and a wood shop downtown, but I never get to see the work or three or four together really until I bring it outside my studio. Before that, it’s just my nose right up to it.

It’s fun to get in and look at someplace new and see if I can make it work. I’ve done this every year since 2006, and early on I would vow I would never do it again. I’m dealing with such rough spaces – decrepit walls, no electricity – but it’s what you’ve got a lot of in Dayton and working here you have to set personal goals and be prepared to go in and spend money and do the work. After four or five times, I get excited to do it specifically in Dayton – you can’t help but appreciate what we can do here. – Zachary Armstrong

What role have these installations had in launching your work into other markets?

A few months ago, I sold 18 paintings to a collector in LA. In all honesty, that gave me the boost to see what I could do immediately afterward. I could send him all these big paintings with no idea what of what is going to happen to them all, and maybe it would be another year before I have that much work built up. But through this installation, I am already sending him photos of new work from the money I made. It keeps the ball rolling. It’s a good way to get a lot of work done and ready to show. I’d lose my mind if I couldn’t figure out how to make it work here. – ZA

Now, the big question: How do you choose what to make? 

Well, you know the old saying, “You paint what’s around you.” All my work is about living and dying in the Midwest. It’s about my childhood, my kid, my brother; it’s about Elder-Beerman and Taqueria Mixteca. – ZA

Taqueria Mixteca?

I’ve been going there for years. All the imagery in there started to grow on me. I’d tip real well and they would give me images right from the walls. There is this crazy juxtaposition of those images with  the imagery I was working with and it’s sort of iconic in Dayton – like the paintings I had done of the Elder-Beerman logo, but different. I had them printed them on canvas and overpainted them and got a good response, but the images were so good that I went and printed them large scale with the money from recent sales. – ZA

Favorite material to work with?

Everything. That’s the problem. You can use anything as a material. I have too many ideas to run with one medium – I always go back – go back to older ideas [and] mediums; a way to prove the ideas are still relevant, valid. Maybe a pencil. – ZA

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?

Picasso’s “Mother and Child (First Steps).” – ZA

Is painting dead? 

Never ever, ever. Painting is the oldest way of communication in the world. When people were grunting, they were painting. – ZA

How is social media changing the art world?

Instagram allows artists like me to be seen by the world. Obviously, websites are helpful, but no one is following a website. And you’ve got to read the art books, you’ve got to read the art magazines, but Instagram is just so now. It gets the point across to see what’s going on immediately – as it’s happening in the studio, during an installation, in a show, at an opening. Of the paintings I sold in the last year, the majority were due to gallerists and collectors seeing them on Instagram. – ZA

For more information about Zachary Armstrong, please visit zacharyarmstrong.co.

A Dayton transplant from Austin, Texas, via Miami, Fla. and Brooklyn, N.Y., Eva is Executive Director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. A curator and arts administrator for over 23 years, she previously served as the first executive director of FilmDayton; the curator/ director of exhibitions and education at the Austin Museum of Art and the director of education at the Miami Art Museum. You can reach her at EvaButtacavoli@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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