(Seen in Instigatorzine 13, which is taking its time getting to us, this interview with artist Martin Wittfooth is the definitive version, since we weren't able to include all of his artwork in the printed issue, due to lack of space. Enjoy!)
It’s been an eventful season for artist Martin Wittfooth. Two shows in two months. His solo show, “The Passions,” at Lyons Wier Gallery in NYC and he curated a show, “Dark Water,” for Copro Nason Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. Narciso Espiritu Jr. and Elias Jimenez dropped by Wittfooth’s Brooklyn studio for a chat.
Artwork by Martin Wittfooth. Photo by Farooq Alihassan.
IZ: I was reading information on your website; you’re from Toronto, Ontario, rising fine artist, etc. How did you get to this point?
MW: Well, I did my BFA at Sheridan College; it’s a school outside of Toronto that has a solid illustration/animation program. Back when I was doing that, I was really more focused on illustrating. I think the reason was because I didn’t know what else to do, but that was the main drive. The whole thing though, was that while I was doing that, I was more drawn to painting, as opposed to ink or digital; I started finding that I was spending an awful lot of time working on something that other people would start and finish the same day. For example, one of the lecturers at this year’s 3x3 Nuts & Bolts Conference at the Society of Illustrators in New York, was my roommate, Matt Rota. He works in ink and water color, and he has a brain that comes up with ideas a lot quicker than mine. So he’d get a job for the New York Times, and they would give him—from the sketch to the final—maybe six hours. I’m thinking, “In six hours I’d have three lines on a page!” Maybe a coffee stain right in the middle of it, too.
So, at school, I would be thinking, “Well, if I stick with painting, what else can I do aside from illustration?” Soon enough, I discovered some people who would be designing snowboards after school. That was really what I wanted to do; design graphics for snowboards, since it snowed a lot up there. Although, when I started snowboard work, I found out it was kind of ridiculous. Art directors for snowboard companies would request very specific styles for completely vast and different boards. For a women’s board they’d want one style and, for a men’s board they’d request another. I loved it though, because the turnaround for one board would be months. Meanwhile, I painted personal work on the side.
At one point, I started doing more of my own paintings. The paintings weren’t as confident, as I was still trying to find my voice. Eventually, there was a show for La Luz Dejesus in Los Angeles, CA, that had an open call for entries. It’s rare for galleries to do that. I sent them a couple of slides, and they actually accepted me into the show. The thing was that there were a hundred other people also exhibiting in the show. It was huge. Now, the only way you advance from that is if you get to sell. I did it two years, back-to-back. Then, I was in a more focused group show; I did well in that. Then I was offered a solo show.
As far as my own work is concerned, it’s not quite as structured or skeletal as it was, but it certainly has moved and grown from there. When I first started showing, I had settled on the mode of getting rid of the human figure. What was irritating about what I was doing in illustration was that there was such an emphasis in finding a style. I felt that everyone was doing the human figure in a more interesting way than I was. I was trying all this stuff that was reminiscent of other artists’ work. Mark Ryden was a huge figure in the world I was entering—galleries and fine art. There were so many people who were influenced by him to the point of being derivative. I felt like I didn’t want to do that. At the same time, shifting away from the human figure, I started conceptually thinking, “How about a world without human figures, but a world with a human presence in it?” All these paintings have a reminiscence of our presence, but we’re not in them. Some people call it “apocalyptic,” but I’m not concerned with sci-fi approaches of “the world after.” It’s more like a metaphor for the idea that, in order to understand, we have to step back and become impartial witnesses, instead of active participants. I feel like, if there are human figures, people will think, “Well, they’re dealing with this problem, not us.” When there’s a pack of dogs attacking a horse, all of a sudden, we have to approach it differently. We don’t have an escape. We can’t pin it on the guy in the painting.
IZ: Right now, do you consider yourself an illustrator, fine artist or both?
MW: I’ll say 99.5% fine artist. For me, I think it’s just a matter of not having enough time to do illustration. It’s definitely a lucrative business. In illustration, you finish a painting, you get paid. With fine art, you finish a painting, you hope you get paid. You might get paid right away if someone buys it.
IZ: How did you continue making work, knowing how different or difficult it might be pursuing a career in fine art?
MW: Well, this is by no means, an easy thing to commit to, but you have to stick to the idea that you will be happy doing this work. You have to be honest with how good your work is; you can’t let shitty work slip by. I’m not really thinking with a client in mind, when I’m working on my paintings. I’m thinking more like, if I’m really happy with this piece, then someone else will be—and they may buy it. That’s the hope, but it’s not the main intent. Also, it helps to live in New York, because there are impressive and intimidating art shows happening almost all the time, almost all over the place. Seeing all these shows puts things in perspective for me. If I’m going to compete with these artists, then I have to step it up. At the end of the day, the paintings that I know are successful tend to sell. That lets me know that I’m not completely crazy.
My experience with fine art has been a gradual experience. For example, the gallery across the street from my show at Lyons Wier is the Gagosian Gallery. All of a sudden, you see work that’s worth, like, a million dollars. Then you meander back to my show…and well, I’m not making a killing here. But it’s a gradual process. Year to year, things are getting better.
IZ: Do you find that your work now, compared to a year ago, has evolved considerably?
MW: The last two years, I’ve produced work that I’m quite happy with. Whenever I’m working on a show, though, I already have the next one in mind. I’m happy with what I did for “The Passions,” but I want to keep learning and trying new techniques. I intend to make the next show better than this one, but there’s some figuring out to do, in terms of how to improve.
IZ: Would you ever stray away from animal figures, because you mentioned stepping away from human figures? Would you move on to something like environments?
MW: I know I will be sticking with the animals, but it’s more of a matter of what context will they be in next? “The Passions” has been one of the more focused themes out of any of the shows I’ve done in the past. The next show will be similar to this one, but it will be different. I’m excited at the idea of starting work revolving around a new theme.
IZ: Do you feel it’s necessary to have an art education to explore opportunities in fine art?
MW: No. At the end of the day, it’s about the work. I think that I gained a lot from school; more from my undergraduate career than my time in the MFA program, but I don’t think an education in the arts is completely necessary. Some schools will tell you there are certain “rules,” but there really aren’t any. I have heard rumors, well-founded ones, that if you do an MFA at Yale, it actually means something to some people. However, it has no bearing on what makes a person a good artist. It’s such a personal journey; no degree or piece of paper can ever make you good.
IZ: A lot of art students aren’t prepared with the business side of art. How did you go from wanting to make things, and then having to deal with the stuff that’s not creative?
MW: The thing about fine art, as opposed to illustration, is once you get picked up by a gallery, and people see your work and you’re successful at your show, you tend to not have to promote yourself as much. If you have one successful show with the right gallery that has great PR, so many people see your work. It’s kind of incestuous, the whole community, because everyone’s looking where they can pick up the next—whoever. It’s a matter of getting along with a gallery. They’ll do the PR for you by taking ads in the right magazines that cater to their client/collector base, and it goes on from there. It really depends on who you’re dealing with. I’ve had experiences where, the only way my show was going to be successful was if I did all the promotional work myself. If the gallery wants to be worthy of their 50%, they should be doing that work.
IZ:Taking a step back, do you find yourself in a different position now? Meaning, you’re now a person people look up to, compared to where you were five years ago?
MW: I think it’s funny. Human psychology is hilarious. Throughout my life, I’ve been setting goals for myself. At one point, earlier in my career, I thought if I just started designing my artwork for snowboards—that’s it. I can do a bunch of those; I can buy an island and just move there. In a weird way, if I was myself a few years ago from now, I’d say, “That’s where I wanna be.” Now that I’m here, I see the Gagosian across the street, and I want to be selling my work for a quarter-million dollars. But, I’m not really in this to make a ton of money. I do feel though, that when I get to a certain point in my career, I’m always looking for the next goal—something higher. I’m not dissatisfied. Certainly, I’m happy to be getting recognition, and I feel like I am influencing students, but I don’t think there’s an end point to this thing. That said, I’m still looking up to other people. I went to a show the other night with my friend and studio mate, Jason Bard Yarmonsky, and I came out of that show so inspired and motivated to work, because the work was very well done.
IZ: Would you say that looking at other artwork is what keeps you on your toes?
MW: Absolutely, and that’s on the point of living in New York. I came from Toronto and lived there for a while, and I grew up in Finland of all places. Not that those communities don’t have anything going on, art-wise, but I did feel like the bar was set lower. A couple of my best friends are considered two of the best artists in Toronto. When they visit New York, they see the work here, and, unsurprisingly, it gives them perspective on where they are. I think that living here, in New York, is teaching me not to be comfortable where I am. To be able to compete in this environment, I have to be able to step it up all the time.
IZ: Do you ever find yourself needing to get away from your work?
MW: I feel that sometimes, for the sake of my work, I have to get away from it. By nature of what I do for a living, I end up traveling a lot. For example, for this show coming up in Santa Monica, we have to fly out there to install the show a week before the opening. By that time, my solo show will be out of the way, “Dark Water” will be out of the way. So, the day after the opening, I and a group of friends will drive up the California coast to San Francisco. I will not be painting a fucking thing when I get there. I just need to absorb things for a while. Just look at things and get away from yourself and your work.
For a time, I had a live-in work space, and I would go a little nuts sometimes, since I was always surrounded by my work. I would wake up in the morning and see a canvas that I have to work on. So I had to separate the two. Unfortunately, I live with two roommates who work from home. There’s always someone doing art shit around me! I want to find myself in a living situation where my roommates are, like, waitresses. Honestly, just to not talk about art for part of my day would be great, but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything else.
IZ: In your work, do you have recurring themes on purpose, or do they come to you naturally?
MW: Part of it is the imagery itself that spoke to me. It’s kind of part of my vocabulary, I suppose. I think the recurring theme of vegetation growing out of other animals or man-made things is making a consistent allusion to how perverse our relationship with nature has become. “The Passions” paintings all have something to do with faith-based thoughts of saintliness or martyrdom, which explains why all the figures have these “halo” shapes around them. In this piece, “The Rapture,” I went back to the idea of flowers bursting out of something, because I liked the idea of something beautiful also being destructive. This dog exploding into flowers is sort of ridiculous, but we have the notions of something being a beautiful event. Like that “rapture” frenzy in May, people are so wrapped up into this beautiful event happening to a few select people, but after that, we have to die. The prerequisite for this beautiful event isn’t a celebration of this life-affirming thing; it’s more a celebration of the annihilation and terrible suffering of a ton of people. The idea is that this beautiful event, the blooming flowers, is ripping this dog to shreds. “The Rapture” is grabbing at imagery in my past work, but all the paintings in “The Passions” are in a new context and more focused thematically over all.
IZ: Is there something in particular that draws you more to this imagery, or do real events, for example, the commotion with the May 21st “rapture” influence your work?
MW: I have an inner dialogue and discussions with other people about stuff. Also I watch a lot of lectures online and in person. Recently, discussions about things that seem very taboo to be criticizing, which is faith: faith driving people to murder, suicide and suffering. These religions obviously cannot coexist with one another. It’s absurd to me that, in the 21st century, the Earth is populated with so many people who are convinced that they and their tribe will be the chosen few to “holiness.” I have nothing in this fight, necessarily. I’m not religious at all, nor was I raised that way, but I live in a country, where you leave the city borders and people do subscribe to utter bullshit, which leads them to hate people for no good reason. But, that’s just the tip of a very decrepit iceberg. With “The Passions,” I’ve been listening to a lot of people who have very eloquent words about this topic, and I decided that it’s time for me to stop thinking about this, and start talking about it with my work.
At the heart of it, martyrdom and sainthood exist in the three Abrahamic traditions that dominate the whole ideology of the world. Within that idea, the moment someone believes that they can be saintly or can be a martyr, there has to be a prerequisite pact of suffering in order to attain that. Let’s be serious. No martyr ever died in his sleep. These figures are idolized through history; a lot of history focuses on their death and execution, rather than celebrating their lives. Much of it has to do with the celebration of violence by virtue of idolizing the perpetrators and victims of it. All these wars being fought and all this strife throughout the world are a direct result of these faith-based systems. As long as you get rid of that, people would stop doing this shit. I think in a way, I’m making a global statement with my work about the absurd nature of holding on to these traditions. Even on a moderate level, it’s a root cause of a lot of people’s complete nonsense. Glorifying violence just because it’s necessary to become holy is a really dangerous concept.
Works by other artists influence my work, too. “The Coronation,” is influenced by a painting by Diego Velasquez, where the Virgin Mary is being crowned, but I decided to crown this queen in trash. It asks, “Exactly what is she the queen of?” “The Ecstasy,” another example, draws from the famous Bernini sculpture. With the sculpture, there’s an accompanying passage from St. Teresa that describes the experience depicted in the piece, and it sounds like some gaudy passage from some romance novel. The passage the sculpture is based on is really painful. It’s all about pain. She wrote about the spear entering her and pulling out, felt like her entrails spilling from of her, but at the same time she was overwhelmed with the feeling of happiness, joy and ecstasy. At the same time, I felt that the relationship between suffering and this divine bliss are completely intertwined. However, if you are to experience ecstasy or bliss, it can only come from god, otherwise, it’s considered perverse.
IZ: How do you go about working, knowing that you’re not the only person exploring these dialogues?
MW: Of course, a lot of people touch upon these topics. Approaching the idea, specifically, sainthood and martyrdom, because they’re such staples in art history, and putting them through a contemporary context. If I had painted these animal figures in a baroque-like setting, it would be weak and hard to relate to for most people. As far as I’m concerned, these ideas are still a big part of our culture and global society. I think that this is a unique take on the continuing dialogue, since no one else is depicting the themes exactly like this. I mean, how many songs are there about love? It’s like The Beatles doing them, compared to—Nickelback. There’s a huge gap. I’m not worried about people thinking I’m following a dialogue that’s been discussed. The way I see it, I’m contributing to the ongoing dialogue that’s taking place in all different kinds of media. For me, this visual stage, this is the way I want to explore it.
See you in 2012!