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Of Waves and Tools

You can almost smell the tang of sea air and hear the lapping of waves in Chris Armstrong’s meticulously painted, luminous waterscapes on view at the Morrison Gallery in Kent. Armstrong, who lives in Gloucester, MA, where the sea informs the town and its rhythms, is a keen observer of the ocean’s unpredictability and vastness. His seas change color — from gentle blues to darker, ominous blackish tones — under the changing light of morning, midday and twilight. The paintings seem in motion: calm or rolling, gentle or agitated, pacific or angry. Armstrong paints in oil, but his surfaces can be canvas, board or even aluminum. The pictures are made from thousands of small brushstrokes, which give them the realism, but not the regularity, of photographs. And like pixelated images, they are best viewed from distance, where you can appreciate Armstrong’s magic with both water and light. “Backshore” is a large and gorgeous view of a sea full of little pointed wavelets riding a single, gentle swell. The water is darkish, the wavelets capped with bits of foam, and the horizon full of soon-to-fade light. “Roller,” on the other hand, is similar but at midday under brighter light that has turned the water light blue. “Galateia #3” (named for one of the 50 sea nymphs in Greek mythology) is unique in the show with its sepia-toned, active ocean that you might see from a boat at noon, when the sun blots out most color with its intensity. “Wonderwall,” over 7 feet wide, is a crashing, powerful image of pale blue water and masses of spray that experienced surfers hope for. (The name may come from famous big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, who named his clothing and equipment line Wonderwall.) Then there is the glittering “January.” Here the sea is becalmed, pale; sunlight is reflected off the near-frozen surface in bright diamonds. This is the water of Peconic Bay or Long Island Sound on a still, sub-freezing day in winter. It is mesmerizing. Armstrong’s pictures share exhibition space with the obsessive sculptures of South Kent resident Peter Kirkiles. He studied at Tufts, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, The Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and he concentrated on industrial skills, which may explain how and why Kirkiles fabricates unique elements — folding steel and glass doors, for example — for architects and designers. But Kirkiles’s current interest is the folding rule, that friend and tool of carpenters and construction workers since the 19th century. They come in various lengths and colors; and vintage rules, such as those made by the Upson Co., are collectible. Kirkiles works with many different woods — applewood, claro walnut, cedar, black locust, tiger maple, ebony. And he uses metals such as bronze and both stainless and blackened steel. Sizes range from quite small to more than 6 feet high, and the rules are bent and folded into varied shapes. Sometimes a piece stands vertically, like several soldiers in formation; others are stretched and contorted like gymnasts. “Upson Rule, No. 6” resembles the lower half of a torso on its knees, calves and feet stretched out behind. “Reclining Rule” is just that, a figure at rest with its “legs” bent at the “knee.” “On the Move, Zig Zag” is a marching band. New Works by Chris Armstrong and Peter Kirkiles continues at the Morrison Gallery through Jan. 22. The gallery is at 8 Old Barn Road in Kent. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Call 860-927-4501 or go to www.info@the MorrisonGallery.com.

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