The Work of Trudy Montgomery
The first impression of Trudy Montgomery’s abstract landscape paintings is one of pulsating colour. Although, on a first glance, one might limit her paintings to representing a cheerful optimism because of their colour spectrum, after one does a double take, an intricate balance between dark and light reveals a more complex portrayal of the landscape. It is often dreamy and symbolic, as if the artist has peeled back the first layer of rock, gorse, and sea, to reveal the raw underbelly of the earth. Indeed, her hot pinks, oranges, and turquoises coupled with her strident marks demonstrates a tapping into what she deems the 'vibrations of place’.
Montgomery’s work therefore intrinsically explodes in expanses of wild landscape. The artist states that ‘the empty landscape free from urbanisation allows a more direct communication with spirit and silence’. She elaborates that the city affects the ‘human instrument’, and that in the emptiness of West Penwith in Cornwall, in its granite landscape, she feels deep permeating vibrations. The artist feels an ability to be quiet here, to go into a stillness; to hear what needs to be said. It is this ability to listen, both to herself and to the landscape she stands upon, that creates the sense of place she strives for in her work. It is an impression channeled through herself: an inner landscape as much as an external one; ‘an essence of self is all I am trying to express’, says the artist. So, although the landscape inspires her deeply in providing a space to listen, it is the inner landscape from which the colour comes.
Montgomery feels that the energetic information of place and self is encoded in the painting through colour. She sees herself as a conductor, feeling the rhythm of location beat in her heart, imbuing through the body, along the arm, out through the tips of her fingers, into the paintbrush which dips itself unknowingly into a colour on her palette. This relationship she has with the energy of place and its translation into colour is a conversation that she is not really in control of, feeling herself conjuring colour, not choosing it. She tells me that everything has a vibration: blue has a different frequency to orange, just as anger has a different frequency to love, and it is this subtlety that she spreads across her canvases. The artist reminds me of emotions people feel in front of a Rothko, a pulsing, almost oppressive feeling that reverberates through the body that one almost feels sick with, and that often expresses itself through tears or a sense of inner stillness. It is this that she taps into, this that she gets people to hear.
The artist always starts with the colour, and it is the palette of the painting that becomes the driving force of its creation. The choice of a warm or a cool palette, she clarifies, has nothing to do with mood, but ‘an instant knowing that comes to you in meditation.’ A feeling from the earth. She says that she ‘just wants to get to that state of ‘ahhh’ with colour’; a sense of recognition that comes from harmonising the self to the right colour. Montgomery is excited by colour and its unpredictability, explaining that it is a lesson in colour theory every time she mixes the palette; every colour is always new, ‘it may come out of the tube the same but you can’t really ever get the colours exactly the same way twice’. Instead of becoming frustrated with this, the artist is intensely excited by the unlimited possibilities. It pushes her to places she would not have gone alone, exploring infinite fluctuations, like a kind of painting guide, a friendly sprite in her paintbrush. She enjoys the sensation of juxtaposing certain colour combinations, explaining that sometimes she receives a bodily reaction when she reaches the right balance: the hairs on her arms and neck standing up with the static of excitement.
However, colour is not the only important aspect in her work. Gesture in her paintings is a clear drive, as strong lines are often at the forefront of her work, revealing just how physical her process can be. She aims for fields of colour with mark making running through them, like grass becoming jagged by the wind. There has to be mark making and texture within the work to break up or drive through the colour, which is sometimes a challenging task. She explains that she has to find the painting not make it. She has to resolve the painting as it comes to her. It is the penetrating visual idea of palimpsest she strives for in her work; the scraping away and then re-adding. She states that what is underneath is as important as what is on the surface, what is left unsaid, unseen. The deep-dark bottle green hiding between an energetic indigo scribble that gives the painting true depth.
For her, composition is another important part of her process, explaining that ‘you need to have the container working’ for the colour and shapes to sit right. She needs both abstract and structure, the banks of the river and the water, to get the painting to a place of synthesis. Montgomery states that although the horizon line is useful for landscape artists, one has to let go of it and challenge oneself to use more different and varied forms, so the work does not become homogenized. She recites Cezanne, ‘In nature there are 7000 lines but I only use 7’, explaining that he simplified the composition on his canvas, taking nature as a guide for his interpretation of what he saw. There needs to be intrigue and conflict within the canvases, which is why Montgomery challenges herself to change her composition every time. In fact, one of her techniques is turning the canvas repeatedly as she paints, which ensures that she sees her work from every possible angle and gives her a new way in, when the next move is not obvious. She enjoys the constant curation and editing of a piece, pushing her own boundaries: always trying to find something new.
Her former profession as an art consultant in California, both led her to becoming an artist and still aids her process. She explains that she has always been visual, and can remember specifically being struck by the early Mondrian paintings she saw at a Tate Britain exhibition when she was only sixteen years old. As her mother is also an abstract painter, it is no wonder that she has such a visual understanding of the world. As an art consultant she utilised this: she had to build up a visual data bank through visiting lots of art fairs, being especially amazed by the work of artists such as James Hayward, Ed Moses and James Nares. She started to help the artists that were renowned for their creativity and also assist the people that she knew putting ‘rubbish on their walls’. She became a kind of patron for emerging artists in California, producing juried art exhibitions and building a successful business from her knack with the visual. She loved talking to artists because deep down she really was one. In many ways, it was a continuation of both her studies in art history, and her education from her mother and her teacher Robin Child, as she would collect the comments from the artists she interviewed, and store them as tips and advice. It was through accessing so many exhibitions, talking to artists and viewing different types of art that she began to realise she was looking for a painting that didn’t exist: one she would have to paint herself.
She was looking at a lot of large-scale work, bold colour, gestural strokes, things that she enjoyed and would eventually use within her own practise. She was captivated by how the artists’ energy would come through in their application of the paint. However, the shiny and hard aspects of the art in LA and the masculine art present in New York, at the time, aesthetically disturbed her. As an art consultant, she felt the aggressive and angry work difficult to place in people’s homes, not wanting to bring these frequencies into people’s spaces. She kept searching for a free, colourful, feminine landscape, and when she couldn’t find it, she decided to pick up a paintbrush herself and add a different voice to the one-sided visual conversation.
In depicting an internal feminine landscape, as well as listening to the earth she stands on, Montgomery describes the painting process as meditation. However, this is a meditation not of outward stillness and breathing-focus, as Montgomery’s work is incredibly physical. The artist often deals with enormous canvases, and is on her feet all day in the studio throwing her whole body at the canvas. She explains that one does not have to be ‘still’ to meditate. For her, when she mixes the paint, she is accessing the right part of her brain, which she suggests promotes a kind of automatic-thinking. When she gets into the studio, she is in a space that is entirely hers, ‘no bills, no baby, no guests’, she doesn’t even really think about food when she gets into the flow. It is a space of Trudy-energy for her to create these importantly feminine landscapes. The artist elucidates, interestingly, that her work has nothing to do with language; she thinks thoughts but words don’t form in her head- instead the visual and the movement take over. She calls this spiritual language ‘being with no mind’. The artist enjoys this non-verbal space, expanding that one doesn’t need to go through language, that rather it is a direct response from the painting she is currently working with, ‘you see it, you respond’. It is this immediacy and non-verbal, bodily understanding that makes her process meditative. So, after a day of intense painting, she feels a monumental calmness.
Of course, this does not mean that she always finds painting easy, saying ‘every time there is a difficult point, every time you lose your way.’ This is an issue especially concomitant with abstract painting, because you can’t really have a strict plan, you have to ‘discover it and chart a fresh path’, Montgomery explains. There is always a point where you ‘feel like you’re walking through molasses’; an uncomfortable state, yet the frustration forces her to once more let go, to surrender to the spiritual language that guides her process. It is at this point, when she doesn’t feel like she can lose anything, that she begins the intuitive process of throwing paint around again, building on what came before, ‘pushing through to the other side of the painting.’ There is always a temptation to stop when things look pretty, but you have to go through the mud and the rain to get the rainbow.
This was indeed the first and last image that struck me on entering Montgomery’s studio: an enormous double rainbow, painted on a canvas almost as tall as the studio itself. It was the first thing that the artist painted once the studio space was finished. She explains that it was just an exercise and that it was painted so long ago she doesn’t know if she’ll take it anywhere, saying that she might even take it down. I hope she never does. It is this for me that represents Montgomery’s key elements in raw form: colour, the natural, spectrums, and womanhood. It acts as a raw portal into the very insides of her work: a strange world of rough shapes, strange vibrations, and exposed, abraded colour.
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