Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Skatopia: 88 Acres of Anarchy" World Premiere

Some good friends of mine have just completed a documentary about Skatopia, a hardcore skateboard park come hillbilly punk cult in rural Appalachia where anything goes. Skatopia: 88 Acres of Anarchy will have its world premiere in New York City on July 11th at the ACEfest indie film festival. If you're in NY and into skate culture, make sure to book tickets in advance, as seating is limited. If you're not in New York, sign up to find out when it will be showing at a film festival near you.



"Skatopia is an Appalachian farm where hardcore skating, punk rock and hillbilly culture collide. Mad-Max style demolition derbies and spontaneous car burning accompany all-night skate sessions. Pain is a badge of honor. Tony Hawk calls Skatopia a 'rite of passage' for hardcore skaters."Skatopia website

Check out a Rolling Stone photo essay about Skatopia here.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thomas Doyle's Encapsulated Memories

For nearly a year, I've been looking at Thomas Doyle's sculptural miniatures with a certain sense of longing. I was fortunate enough to come across his "Acceptable Losses" at LeBasse Projects a couple of weeks ago, and it was even more powerful in person than it is in photographs.

"Acceptable Losses"


Thomas seems to have an innate ability to encapsulate ominous, visceral emotions inside these little glass domes. For me, this particular piece brings to the surface all sorts of raw feelings about relationships, as well as memories of my childhood and my parents' divorce. The godlike perspective also allows a sense of the isolation and containment of bad thoughts. It's working on so many levels, for something so ostensibly simple.



Thomas' work to date has been grouped into three series – Distillation, Reclamations and Bearings – each of which explores a different emotional landscape. "The Distillation series is really about boiling life down to the moments that define who we are," he revealed. "Consequently, many of the works deal with the interactions between parents and children in or around the home. The house is really the center of the universe for a child – it's the stage for the majority of memories, and it's the symbol of security, joy, terror, etc. Most of the homes in that series are imperiled, but maybe no more so than the families they house. In that way, the houses take on personalities of their own."




These narrative sculptures enclose ambiguous yet suggestive scenarios in a timeless, faceless bubble that encourages the viewer to imprint the pivotal moments of their own life onto the tiny figures below them.

Thomas writes, "My work mines the debris of memory through the creation of intricate worlds sculpted in 1:43 scale and smaller. Often sealed under glass, the works depict the remnants of things past — whether major, transformational experiences, or the quieter moments that resonate loudly throughout a life. In much the way the mind recalls events through the fog of time, the works distort reality through a warped and dreamlike lens."

"The Reprisal"

"The glass itself contains and compresses the world within it, seeming to suspend time itself — with all its accompanying anguish, fear, and bliss," he added. "By sealing the works in this fashion, I hope to distill the debris of human experience down to single, fragile moments. Like black boxes bobbing in the flotsam, these works wait for discovery, each an indelible record of human memory."

"Courier"

As usual with great artists, the urge to create new worlds began in childhood. "My mother was really into taking me to museums, and I spent many, many childhood hours with my face pressed up to glass display cases, peering into dioramas and other simulated worlds," he said. "When I was four years old, I made a small scene with a block of wood coated in white and blue Play-Doh. On this I perched a small plastic penguin. So I guess this all started pretty early.

Later, I studied painting and printmaking, but ended up feeling limited by those media. After time, I realized I should just be making what made me the happiest, and I started the miniature work. I often say that if the nine-year-old me traveled forward to meet the current me, he'd probably give me a huge high five – and maybe demand to stay."

This Sunday, one of Thomas Doyle's sculptures will be featured on the front cover of half of the New York Times Magazines at newsstands, illustrating the "Architecture Issue."



Keep an eye on Erratic Phenomena for an interview with Thomas later this year, as well as news about his upcoming show with LeBasse Projects.

If you find this sort of work interesting, be sure to check out the photographs of Jonah Samson, Frank Kunert, Minimiam and Helen Nodding. I would like to thank Reevo at the excellent art and design blog Ektopia for initially introducing me to the work of these unusual artists, as well as to that of Thomas Doyle.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Kelly Vivanco's "The Conservatory"

My interview with Kelly Vivanco was also featured on the Hi-Fructose website, with different images. If you prefer, you can read it there.
Erratic Phenomena readers are hardly strangers to the work of the fabulous Kelly Vivanco, but up to this moment, I have never done one of my intensive interviews with her. That's about to change.

"Rabbit Ears"


Kelly Vivanco has been quietly painting away in Escondido, California for over six years, honing her skills at depicting her inner world until creating an enigmatic yet compelling scenario has become almost second nature. In much of her work, it is the eyes that first captivate the viewer – they are deep, glistening pools of emotion that can evoke a storyline in a glance. Even her animal characters are imbued with distinct personalities and roles in the mysterious allegory in which they dwell. All of Kelly's work has a distinct narrative sensibility, bringing to mind the great children's illustrators of the turn of the century – a vintage storybook feel which is made contemporary by the self-possessed attitude and quirky style of her subjects.



Adept in many media, Kelly generally works in acrylics and water-soluble oils. Her paintings run the gamut from loosely rendered, illustrative tableaux to highly finished imaginary portraits, but no matter what method she chooses, they share her confident hand, acute sense of color and a playful wonder.

Kelly is busy preparing for her first Los Angeles solo show, entitled "The Conservatory," which opens on June 12th at Thinkspace, but fortunately she found some time to chat with me about her work.

"Curious Bouquet"


Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your childhood, which you spent drawing "subterranean cities and space warrens" in "a nest of paper, crayons, markers and other materials." Was anyone in your family an artist?

Kelly Vivanco: I was always drawing, completely content with a blank pad of paper and pens. My mom always tells me how I would set up a nest, sometimes several nests of creative supplies, where I would sit and draw. I was never a coloring kid. Never liked coloring books. My grandfather was a Sunday painter and I got lots of supplies from him. My grandmother from my mother's side was artistic too, but I never really saw what she did.

I remember one of my distant relatives died and they sent me a lot of pads of paper from her estate. She was an artist too, and I guess someone remembered that I was a paper monster. That was the best thing, like Christmas, boxes and boxes of paper pads and markers. Kinda dusty-smelling, but who cared?

"Tea"


EP: That sounds wonderful. Did you always know you would be an artist?

KV: I think I did. I can't remember ever wanting to be anything else. It was the only thing I felt I was any good at. I thought I might illustrate children's books one day. I loved Richard Scarry books and Beatrix Potter. I enjoyed looking through my richly illustrated books, getting absorbed in the worlds. Sometimes I look through a book I haven't seen since I was little and I have this sense of recognition – like, "Oh my god! I was there!" Like I had actually been in the picture.

"Love Note"


EP: We've spoken in the past about how much we both love Golden Age children's book illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. Do you think there were particular illustrations or other images that you encountered at an early age that may have shaped your aesthetic?

KV: Well, definitely Beatrix Potter's work. I loved The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Anything that has hidden elements to draw you in. My mom gave me a couple of books based on Chinese folk tales – one was called The Magic Brush, I believe, where a boy is given a brush and everything he paints comes to life off of the page.

The other was Japanese, called Issun-bōshi, about a boy who is one inch tall and the adventures he has. It was great, lots of colorful illustrations of demons and giant fish. I was always looking through books my parents had too, tomes on Egypt and the art in the Louvre and Uffizi Gallery. There are plenty of books I got from the library as well, I just don't remember the titles. I get so mad when they want to cut library funding and hours. I think, "Hey! That's where I got my fuel!"

"The Visitor"


EP: Yeah, public libraries are the soul of our culture... I would be a very different person if they hadn't existed. You once said, "My paintings are a little theater, putting on plays of interesting scenarios I like to watch. Little mysteries, precious enigmas." With what seems like remarkable ease, you create recognizably individual portraits with an overwhelming sense of narrative – dramatic depictions of emotions and passions that are instantly discernible. You imbue even your animal characters with distinct personalities and feelings – determination, resourcefulness, weariness, curiosity. I know that some of your characters' costumes and expressions come from your large collection of vintage snapshots. Where else do you gather inspiration for the incredible array of emotions and situations you depict?

KV: It's all inside, I suppose, but if I am feeling blank I will look through my old photos or the giant stacks I have in my image library and a cloud will form. That's what it feels like – like 1,000 droplets of inspiration forming. Sometimes just being outside and looking at the light or some amazing colored flowers will be enough. It feels cheesy to say I feel inspired by a sunset, but it's true. I won't say, "Look at that vibrant bougainvillea, I must paint it!" It will be more like a welling of appreciation for the color and form I am seeing, and I will take that feeling of inspiration and transform it into my own language.

"Terrarium"


EP: Your surreal, slightly sinister dreamscapes have a disturbing and wonderful power – as in the girl gingerly reaching for the spiky red twigs emerging from a radiant hole in the ground in "New Growth," and the child lost in the swamp at night with a boat full of strange radiating objects in "Constellation." I've often wondered why you don't paint these dark, enigmatic scenarios more frequently. Does this sort of imagery come to you only at certain emotional periods in your life?

KV: Ummm.... it's a mystery to me, even. I think each piece sprouts individually. An overall mood may lead to a small body of influenced pieces but I can't look on many pieces and recall how I was feeling at the time.

EP: I've read some of your blog posts about your dreams, which seem to be unusually strange and vivid. Do some of your paintings emerge directly from your dream environments, or are the associations between the two more nebulous?

KV: Nebulous, definitely. My dreams are often odd. Maybe that is the mystery element. I don't think I have intentionally painted things from my dreams – more just a general inspiration of oddness or mood – but my paintings do end up with a dreamlike quality, in that things happen which have no explanation.

I once had a dream about a white horse which talked to me. It left me with the most curious and wondrous feeling. I told a friend of mine about it. He fancied himself a dream interpreter, and he proceeded to “tell me what it was about.” I don't remember what his interpretation was, only that after that, I was never able to recall that wondrous feeling I had been left with.

"Vapors"


EP: You paint in several different styles – from the most classically rendered of oils to loose, expressionistic acrylics – all of which are distinctly yours, yet produce quite a variety of results. Switching gears frequently – including keeping up with your thrice-weekly web comic, Patches – helps you stay fresh and inspired. Many admire your work with custom vinyl toys, where you take the blank toy form and deconstruct it, transforming it almost beyond recognition. You've mentioned to me that you're tempted to do more sculpting, but are leery of becoming too fragmented in your artistic pursuits. Where do you see your work heading in the future?

KV: I saw a blog with some amazing hooked rugs, and instantly wanted to try my hand at it. I have to consciously rein these horses in constantly so I can stay focused on painting. However, I would like to do more sculptural pieces. I did a figure for my husband Peter for Christmas and liked the way it turned out. Maybe more of those. The custom vinyls were fun, but what I want to do would be from scratch. One of my big temptations would be to make or have someone make clothing based on what I have painted. That would be a lot of fun (and a totally selfish way to get a coat or a dress).

EP: That would be great. We'll have to hook you up with an aspiring designer!

KV: Someone who was a lot better at sewing than I am, at least!

EP: Hats, too. We need better hats.

KV: And bauble-y barrettes and brass buttons.

"The Study"


EP: Indeed. I recently read that Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series was partly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" and Hans Holbein the Younger's "Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling," and it occurred to me that these two images bear a certain resemblance to ones you've painted of similar subjects. In the past, you've mentioned Holbein – the great Renaissance portrait painter revered for his penetration into character – as one of your inspirations. I think I can see some of his influence in your characterization of your complex but self-possessed subjects. What in particular intrigues you about Holbein's work?

KV: Exactly that, this richly detailed self-assuredness all of his paintings possess, even if the subject looks otherwise. I love his colors as well. I sometimes look through his work for color combinations. Nearly all of the old Dutch masters are incredibly inspirational to me. I adore the Pre-Raphaelites, too. But that makes sense, because they were looking back through the gaudy gilt to the solid detail of the Dutch painters.

"Sketching"


EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?

KV: Rembrandt, Millais, Waterhouse, Dürer, Sargent, Kahlo, Van Gogh, the Wyeths... there are so many things in all of their work to be inspired by! I am easy in that respect though. Sometimes I am transfixed by a simple line or color. We recently walked through the Art Institute in Chicago and my mouth was agape at the massive amount of work by artists I had never heard of – Ivan Albright being one of them. How can I not know of this guy!? His work is amazing in person, a picture does it no justice. It's like he got caught in a whirlpool in every square inch.

"Dawnwatchers"


EP: You've mentioned an affinity for the work of Odd Nerdrum, the Norwegian figure painter who uses traditional techniques reminiscent of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. He is a rebel amongst his contemporaries – the modernists – in that he embraces the representational, emotional and sensual in his work. Tell me a little about your relationship with Nerdrum's work.

KV: I saw his work in a book perhaps 10 years ago and it struck me as brilliant. Apart from the egotism of the man himself perhaps, his work has the depth and technical skill of Rembrandt married with some deeply emotional and sometimes disturbing imagery. The beauty of the way he handles paint, at odds with a decapitated head! You just gotta love the way he handles paint, if that is your thing at all.

"Complicating"


EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?

KV: Hmm… man, that is a hard question! Probably one I have seen in person that just made my insides electric – I am going to go with the first one that comes to mind when I think of that feeling, and it would be "Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices" by Jules Bastien-Lepage. The best face! I saw it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art maybe 15 years ago. It just stuck with me because of that feeling I got. There have been a few I have seen in person that have made me want to cry. Overwhelmed, like a ginormous BABY.

EP: It's lovely... her expression is so real, and the fiery angel is almost translucent over the everyday surroundings behind her. Really unusual.

"Handfuls"


EP: Is there anything else you're finding really fascinating at the moment? Literature or philosophies that spark your imagination? Anything that helps you get into the right mindset for painting?

KV: I wish I had more time to read! It is one of those things that fall aside when there is painting to be done. I did read The Road by Cormac McCarthy recently. Bleak and amazing.

I have been thinking about silent pictures recently, how the actors were so expressive with their eyes. They had to convey so much visually, and the depth of emotion was open to interpretation. How one connected with their looks and actions was important to the story and empathy for the characters. We recently watched City Lights. I would put it in a list of my favorite films. We also watched Sparrows with Mary Pickford. The film quality and mood is really amazing.

EP: For some reason, the reference to silent movies reminds me of your painting "Tune"... all the story caught in that single moment and glance.

KV: I would like to think that the subjects of my paintings, human or animal, are able to convey hints and glimpses of some larger story that the viewer can connect to.

"The Conservatory"


EP: Your June 12th solo show at Thinkspace is called "The Conservatory." What can you tell me about the work you will be presenting?

KV: Of course, it is never my intention to present a preloaded and limited interpretation of my paintings, but to leave it open and release a thousand furling tendrils of stories and connections. I am going for a multi-meaning there, where a conservatory is a place to study or perform art or music, and it also can be like a greenhouse where people grow interesting plants and specimens. I guess overall, it would be a place where interesting things grow and happen.

EP: That's a perfect description for a place where your work would flourish.

KV: I wanted to choose a theme which would be inspirational and not limiting. Set the stage, if you will. Places where amazing things happen. Kind of like the “Peppermint Forest.” The show at Subtext in July with Jason Limon will be "Under the Cover of Darkness.” Open themes!

"Exploring"


EP: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

KV: Hmm... plans. The best times are hanging out with my family and painting! All I can hope for is a plan that includes more of that. Peter keeps making me panels to paint on, so I keep painting! Maybe travel, go to more museums and places of natural beauty to be inspired. Find some more music that fuels my painting...

EP: You've got a pretty ambitious schedule for the rest of the year, too!

KV: Cripes, I know! They all happen to be bunched up in the coming months, then it drops off into deep space!

EP: That will be a good time to contemplate your next move.

KV: I have painted more in the past year than in any previous. Rather than getting burned out, I am getting better. Painting non-stop – for the most part – has opened different passages up, leading to new work.

EP: So great to hear that the pressure is inspirational rather than exhausting. I know you have this infinite fount of wonder in you, but there's only so much time in the day.

KV: Indeed, I am petitioning for longer days, but only weekend days and weekdays after 5. I don't know who to give the petition to.

EP: I will have to do some research on that and get back to you.

KV: You are better connected than me!

EP: I'm just very good at research.

"Tender Shoots"


Kelly Vivanco's first Los Angeles solo show, "The Conservatory," will open on June 12th at Thinkspace Gallery. It will be an amazing night for art, so make sure to come out and enjoy Kelly's work, as well as Sarah Joncas' solo show in the front room. Both Kelly and Sarah will be there, and no doubt have wonderful installations in the offing.

"Loose Ends"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Martin Wittfooth's "Babylon"

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.

The Questions:

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.

"Blind Travelers"


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.

"Stasis"


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.

"Nocturne"


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.

"Paralysis"


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.

"Svetogorsk"


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.

"Emissary"