The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Alvin Armstrong
Looking at Alvin Armstrong’s vibrant, velocity-filled paintings, one would never guess that the artist only began painting three years ago. Take the pair of monumental canvases currently on view at The Artsy Vanguard exhibition in Miami, for example. Titled The Grass Ain’t Always Greener (2021) and The Grass Is Always Greener (2021), the works each feature a pair of riders astride glowing chestnut-brown horses galloping full force towards the viewer, thundering explosively off of the surface of the painting. Articulated with just a few simple blocks of color, Armstrong’s composition deftly communicates the nuanced tension of the riders’ shoulders, the grip of their thighs, and the careful balance of their weight. Meanwhile, his horses are rendered in equally confident, sculptural swaths of paint that showcase every muscle, joint, and tendon at work.
“What I’m really drawn to is movement,” Armstrong explained over a recent Zoom call from his Brooklyn studio. His uncanny knack for capturing form comes from an uncommon but deeply intimate well of experience: Prior to becoming an artist, Armstrong was raised as an athlete and became a licensed acupuncturist. “Without me knowing it, [acupuncture school] was really a figure drawing class on steroids,” he said. “My understanding of proportion, the way the skin bounces back, the touch and temperature of the skin, knowing every bone in the body and all the joints and ligaments—I feel so drawn to the form of the body. I’m really working on how creative I can be in using that knowledge and information and changing how I deliver and express it.”
In addition to informing his technique, Armstrong’s background also inspires his subject matter. As a person of Black, white, and Japanese descent, he often paints portraits celebrating Black athletes. “I’m heavily influenced by Black America and what all of us have been through,” he said. “While not perfect, sports and athleticism, in my opinion, are the closest things to a meritocracy in this country—the fastest, the strongest, and the quickest usually make it out on top. There’s also the symbolism in the fight—the grace, the strength, the power, the rebound, the perseverance, knowing what athletes go through and how they focus only on the game. There are a lot of parallels between being an athlete and being an artist.”
While certain works portray specific figures like tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams or Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, others are amalgamations of a feeling. A painting might encapsulate the physical and emotional sensation of what it’s like to dribble a basketball or throw a winning punch in a boxing ring. In one recent diptych, Hammer in a Sea of Hate (2021), Armstrong captures the late baseball legend Hank Aaron (known as “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank”) up at bat. Painted onto two separate canvases, Aaron’s image is split down the center—one canvas bears the player’s face in a focused grimace while the other features tensed arms and clenched hands readying themselves to swing. Aaron’s jersey is a gust of sweeping greys, a blur of motion before the moment of truth.
“The coral colored flesh tone in the background of this painting represents the white crowds that he so bravely played in front of as he neared eclipsing Babe Ruth’s homerun record in 1973-74,” Armstrong wrote in an Instagram caption accompanying a photo of the work. “Racial slurs, death threats and taunts were at a constant and soaring rate. This all because a black man had dared to hit more homeruns than a white icon.”
Growing up in San Diego in a family of professional athletes, Armstrong explained how much of his work is an exploration of the culture, the craft, and the meaning of athleticism in Black communities. “Sports and entertainment for so long have been the only way out of certain circumstances,” he said. “It’s really just about connecting to my truth and what I know best.”While Armstrong is best known for his powerful portrayals of athletes, that’s “just the tip of the iceberg,” he explained. “I’m drawn to the Black American experience, period.” One of his largest bodies of work thus far is his series, “Malcolm Had Feelings Too.” Painted between Juneteenth and July 4th of 2020, the 32 portraits all feature Malcolm X mid-speech. “I just had this feeling of wanting to paint Malcolm X, so I started watching old black-and-white footage of him speaking,” said Armstrong. “I painted one and felt good about it and then painted another. When I got to nine a few days later, I came across Andy Warhol’s ‘32 Campbell’s Soup Cans.’ They didn’t do much for me but as an artistic response, I decided I’d paint 32 Malcolms.”
Armstrong’s newness to the world of painting has not stopped his astronomic ascent. In just three years, he has already had two solo exhibitions—his debut at Medium Tings in 2020 and another at Anna Zorina Gallery, curated by Stephanie Baptist, this past May. His work was also included in “Let Freedom Ring,” a public installation of works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah in January. Armstrong is currently represented by Anna Zorina Gallery and will participate in his first residency program in 2022 at Pioneer Works.
“I found this three years ago and it’s been beyond anything I could’ve imagined,” said Armstrong. He explained how he was first inspired to paint after getting sober. “It changed the course of how I spent my time once I left the bars,” said Armstrong. “I had a lot of free time and a positive community insisting that I try new things; as part of that, I started going to museums.” It was at the Brooklyn Museum that he encountered his first muse—a series of watercolor landscapes. “I said to my friend, ‘maybe I should try painting.’ The next day, she brought me supplies.” Since then, Armstrong has been nothing short of obsessed. During the first two years, he would spend 15 hours a day painting in his apartment. “I knew if I believed in myself and put in the time and work, something would happen,” he said, echoing the persistent dedication and focused mindset of an athlete.
Discussing the sheer act of painting, Armstrong gets noticeably excited, hands gesturing poetically and eyes aglow. “It amazes me how, as you add layer and color, the light changes and the form presents itself,” he mused. “I truly understand when painters talk about the spirituality of it. You can be as technical as you want but if you’re being honest and present, the work talks to you. It’s the true blessing that visual artists get and is one of the biggest perks of being alone in your studio and interacting. It’s also frustrating as all hell.”
“It’s a really special thing and I’m really humbled that this is what I get to do,” he continued. “I move the paint around; it’s amazing.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Alvin Armstrong by Nivia Hernandez. Courtesy of Alvin Armstrong.