Martin Wittfooth crept up on me, somehow. I was intrigued by his rusty buses, crazed desert plains and resigned, suffering beasts – and then last year, his work suddenly took a huge leap forward, casting off much of its kitsch and reaching for the technical rigor and luminous atmosphere of the great turn-of-the-century landscape painters. At the same time, his apocalyptic themes gained more focus, zeroing in on the pathos of a discrete instant in a dreadful future that seems all too possible, despite the surreal apparitions that wander its blasted, depopulated landscapes.
"Saints Preserve Us"
Born in Toronto in 1981, Martin spent much of his childhood in Finland, returning to Toronto in 1993, where he later earned his BA in illustration at Sheridan College. Moving to the fine-art mecca of New York, he garnered an MFA from the School of Visual Arts and settled in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Martin's decaying industrial neighborhood has proven to be an inspiration in itself. "There isn't a lot going on here – it's quiet and the landscape is beautiful, but not in any conventional sense," he explained. "Most people would be shocked at such a fond aesthetic description of this neighborhood. What I respond to, though, is that what you see all over the place here are the remnants of things that once served some purpose, but have outlived their usefulness, and have either been abandoned or left to oxidize and decay... I can't count how many instances of inspiration for my work I've encountered in just walking around these blocks."
"A Milder Fate Than Tyranny"
Martin has been putting the finishing touches on his work for "Babylon," his upcoming show with Jon Todd at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal, but he agreed to set aside some time to give me some insight into his work.
Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your experience of growing up. Was anyone in your family an artist?
Martin Wittfooth: My grandfather was an avid illustrator and cartoonist, and it stands to reason that I received the ambition to create art from him, even though I never got the chance to meet him. I remember growing up in Finland, poring over his drawings and watercolors and feeling that I could get somewhat of a sense of who he was as a person through the work.
EP: Is there a particular moment that stands out for you as a turning point or an artistic awakening?
MW: I don’t recall any specific instance in my life that made me want to pursue this career, probably because it never felt like a “job,” but just something I always felt compelled to do.
"As We Waited"
EP: When you first emerged on the gallery scene, your work was more overtly surreal, and often contained tongue-in-cheek elements which lightened the tone a bit. Since then, your technique has become much more refined and classical, often resembling traditional 19th-century landscape painting with an apocalyptic twist. Do you feel you are still evolving toward an aesthetic goal that will take more time and patience to reach?
MW: I like to think that with every painting I make, and with every new show I prepare a body of work for, I’m evolving in some direction. The artists I most admire are the ones that have constantly challenged themselves throughout their lives, never giving up the search – artists whose work shows progress as they continually explore their individual worlds. This is something I strive for in my own work as well, and will continue to do until I can’t paint anymore. Should I be fortunate enough to live to an old age, I expect that the paintings I will create then will be drastically different from what I’m doing now, yet still retain the gills and tailbone of these earlier times of my artistic development.
"The Great Parade of the Unwashed"
EP: Lately you've been concentrating on the destruction mankind has wrought on the earth, depicting flooded, ruined, depopulated landscapes through which gargantuan mutant animals make their way despite the devastation, while fire rains from the skies. You've said your recent work is "about nature reclaiming what was once taken from it."
Clearly you are tapping into our subconscious anxieties about war – through references to the Cold War and the flaming oil wells of Iraq – as well as our ongoing destruction of our own habitat. Such overt socio-political messages are not particularly common in the world of pop surrealism. Do you see yourself as advancing a moral or political message, or is apocalypse a metaphor for something more subtle? What about this concept compels you?
MW: I’ve adopted this theme as a personal response to the variety of disturbing issues the earth is ravaged by, collective fears (often manufactured by political agendas), and the alarming predictions some of the world’s smartest people have made for our future. I feel the need to try and process this tension through my paintings, with the hope that on some level it can contribute to the dialogue, trying to reinterpret some of these heavy issues on the symbolic playing field of the canvas.
EP: You have an ongoing series called "Aesop's Folly" which disturbingly explores the melding of two different animal species into a single miserable specimen. Many of your animals are suffering – blind, wounded, aflame – and those that are whole often appear to be angry, perhaps even seeking revenge for the devastation we have caused. What inspired the prominence of damaged animals in your work, and what does it signify for you?
MW: In my work – which reflects my feelings of the real world as well – animals are involuntary players on a stage that we’ve created, victims and witnesses of our pursuits of power and “progress.” I feel that on the whole, we’re largely ignorant and complacent about the global havoc we’re creating with regards to the natural realm. Perhaps less now that we’re getting a steady dose of harrowing news about such things as dead-zone lakes of trash collectively the size of the United States growing in the oceans, daily additions to the extinct-species list, and countless other such cheerful bits.
Yet the vast majority of people seem to turn a blind eye to these things. This is disturbing to me, but I can understand it from the standpoint of wanting to shield oneself from depression and a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of the overwhelming number of these problems. Unfortunately, our detachment from nature has created a massive lack of empathy for the co-inhabitants of the planet. The atrocious, faceless machine that is factory farming is an example of this, and the paradox of the meat produced in this fashion being made into a variety of “comfort foods” hasn’t escaped me.
I feel the need to process this stuff through my art – the only way I really know how to, really.
EP: Your giant mutant animals remind me a bit of Atomic Age science fiction movies like Godzilla and Them!, in which irradiated monsters wreak havoc on humanity. Did "nuclear monster" movies have an influence on you, or did this idea come from somewhere else?
MW: I actually don’t cite the monster movies as an influence on my paintings, but I suppose my work shares a similar origin to theirs – the fear of unknown consequences. In exploring the idea of animals inhabiting a world that we’ve abandoned, I gradually found myself playing with their scale in relation to their surroundings rather than the species “mixing” of my earlier work, which is something that does echo the nuclear monsters of those movies.
EP: Lately, you've begun to portray some of your smallest creatures surrounded by dewy, slightly overblown still lifes in the manner of Dutch Baroque masters like Jan Davidsz de Heem. They seem like an interesting technical challenge for you as a painter. What are you hoping to achieve with this series?
MW: I’ve always admired the meticulous attention to detail and the great sense of atmosphere found in the work of the early still-life painters, and thought that it would be an interesting idea to explore the merging of my world with that aesthetic – in the process also putting myself in a really challenging spot with regards to trying to pull it off technically, which excites me. I approached this idea with the sense that the two could go together rather well, and read as scenes of the small places within the world that I’m trying to create, while most of my larger paintings depict the zoomed-out perspective.
"The Western Express," 2007
EP: Buses and refrigerators are a recurring motif in your work. What do they symbolize for you, and how did they come to take such a prominent role in your vision?
MW: Abandoned, moored buses and refrigerators share one element that I love to paint – oxidized metal, rust, and peeling paint. From a symbolic perspective, these abandoned relics suggest a lack of direction and the futility of humanity’s obsession with self-preservation.
EP: When artists talk about the work they admire, it can be very revealing. One of your major influences is the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel specialized in landscapes which showed the mundane, gritty side of life and was one of the first artists to paint social satire and political allegory. Like his predecessor Hieronymous Bosch, he envisioned apocalyptic tableaux of the last days of mankind, which were at times presided over by giant mutant beasts. Tell me a little about your relationship with Breugel's work.
MW: Bruegel the Elder’s work struck a chord with me when I first studied his “Tower of Babel” painting. A lot of his work deals with human overindulgences, which is something I gravitate to visually as well. His work is a great example of striking allegorical social commentary.
"Light Sweet Crude"
EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
MW: With regards to the handling of really life-like light and atmosphere and imbuing their subject matter with very visceral “soul,” I love the work of Velasquez, Rembrandt, Raeburn, Sargent and Caravaggio. The former four were of course mainly interested in portraiture, but even so, I really connect with their work. Other artists whose paintings have demanded hours of my attention are landscape painters like Albert Bierstadt and Jacob van Ruisdael – epic stuff.
"Along the Western Front"
EP: In your world, "Babel" is a graffiti artist who tags buses and abandoned buildings, and it's also the destination of the defunct bus in "The Western Express." "The Tower of Babel" is one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's best-known paintings, and that structure seems to appear dimly through the smoke in "Along the Western Front." One of your paintings is entitled "Babel Fish" (presumably a nod to the translation fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and "Babylon" is also the name of your upcoming show at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal.
Of course, the Tower of Babel is a Judeo-Christian myth in which humanity tries to build a tower to the heavens in a hubristic act of defiance against God, who quells their ambition by confusing their languages and causing them to scatter over the face of the earth. Curiously enough, the ruins of the city of Babylon are located a short distance from Baghdad. Obviously you have a certain fascination with the idea of Babylon. Tell me why you find it so interesting.
MW: "Babel" has a dictionary definition of “a place or scene of noise and confusion; a confused mixture of sounds, as of voices or languages” – a state that I think rings true of our world today. I think that the ancient story of the Tower of Babel draws an intriguing parallel with modern times – that of a society that is driven by blind ambition and arrogance toward a very potential collapse; religions, governments, and ethnic groups in various states of disagreement and conflict; a world out of balance and in a deep state of confusion. The suggested aftermath of these things in my work is my attempt at playing around with the idea of a New Babel.
"As We Slept"
EP: I would ask you about your process, but you've already posted such an amazing overview of the painting phase of it at Hi-Fructose that it would be redundant. However, it would be interesting to know more about the conceptual underpinnings of your process – how you envision, research and formulate a composition for one of your paintings.
MW: Ideas for paintings usually tend to sneak up on me quite suddenly, without much warning. It usually just involves me seeing something that provides the initial inspiration – such as an aged, character-laced building in Brooklyn, a movie, or a random photograph – or alternatively something I’m reading will trigger ideas.
Once I get on a roll off of the initial idea, I’ll do a fair bit of digging around to research what it is I’m going to paint. The general look of the finished painting takes shape in my head fairly early, and as I start to sketch out the piece, the more fleshed out the whole thing becomes. By the time I start painting, I have a pretty clear idea of what the finished piece will look like, as I’ll often do a color study to use as a guide.
"Aesop's Folly XIV"
EP: I understand you try to paint a portrait a week in order to hone your skills. Do you think we will be seeing the results of those figurative workouts in a gallery setting in the future, or will portraiture remain an exercise for you?
MW: Portraiture has turned out to be hugely important in my development as an oil painter. Painting from life is the only way to really understand such things as how light behaves on tangible form, and has informed me a great deal about the importance of such things as subtlety, patience (I paint layer-on-layer), and the delicate handling of atmospheric effects. This is most definitely something I will continue to practice for as long as I can, and lately I have begun to think that at some point in the potentially near future, I’ll probably include some of these portrait paintings in a show, if only to display one aspect of where I’m coming from.
"Saints Preserve Us"
EP: I love the barnwood shelving that frames your recent painting "Saints Preserve Us," an intense and massive piece that would be the focal point of any room. Along the same lines, I could imagine you doing a massive triptych à la Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" someday. What do you think?
MW: I have some rather grandiose ideas for something along those lines in the future. I have a few solo shows scheduled in the next couple of years for which I’m planning to create some more intensive large-scale pieces that delve deeper into some aspects I’ve recently begun to explore, such as installation work and the merging of tangible objects with the two-dimensional surface, custom frames, that kind of thing. I am really excited to get going on these projects.
EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
MW: This is a tough one, but possibly “Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1559.
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really fascinating at the moment? Literature or philosophies that spark your imagination?
MW: I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration from a variety of TED lectures – experts on a wide variety of topics sharing some highly influential ideas. I also listen to a wide array of podcasts, recently finishing a series called Climate Wars on CBC by journalist and author Gwynne Dyer, which, as the title suggests, talks about imminent conflicts that are likely to result due to changing climate patterns around the world. Another podcast I’m hooked on is Real Time with Bill Maher – oftentimes searing critiques on current topics, stimulating debates, plus I fully agree with his stubborn lash against religion and badly managed politics and a variety of other stuff.
I should note that this isn’t all that I fill my head with. I also watch my fair share of movies and read books that have next to nothing to do with current issues necessarily, but these are some go-tos for me in developing new ideas for paintings and to keep up to date with what is being discussed.
"A Day Without Rain"
EP: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
MW: I’m excited the release of Babel, a collection of my work scheduled for September of this year designed and co-published by the great Mark Murphy in association with Yves Laroche Gallery. It’s a collection of most of my work up to date, and will include a limited-edition version that I’m looking forward to developing as well.
I’m flying down to San Diego for Comic-Con for the first time this year and Miami Art Basel again in December, both of which should be a great time, and that’s shortly followed by my next solo show at Copro Gallery in February 2010, for which I’m planning some major works. Gary Pressman and Greg Escalante of Copro have really been pulling for me and have offered me some fantastic opportunities, and I plan to make this show monumental. Later in 2010, in October, I have another solo show scheduled at Roq la Rue in Seattle. Kirsten Anderson is great, and I’ve been looking forward to working with her for a long time. There are some other group shows and projects slated for times in between these shows, all exciting stuff.
I’m really grateful to be able to do what I’m doing, so I’d like to close with a genuine thanks to everyone who’s supported me and taken interest in my work.
EP: Thanks for a great interview, Martin!
"Babylon," a joint exhibition between Martin Wittfooth and his good friend Jon Todd, opens on June 17th at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal. Martin's marvelous "Saints Preserve Us" was recently made available as a print through Opus Art, and will also be on view at Copro Gallery as part of August's Blab! Show.