Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Painter Martin Wittfooth is directly channelling the universe in his profoundly epic surreal oil paintings of majestic animals. While embracing traditional techniques of the old Masters, as well as some new approaches, he’s created a visual language that appeals to one’s aesthetic and symbolic sensibilities. Martin and Ray Jones both attended SVA’s MFA Illustration program together. They had a lot to catch up on, because this is by far one of our longest interviews. Enjoy all of the sage wisdom Martin had to share.
RAY JONES: First question, can you explain your evolution as a Painter trained as an Illustrator?
MARTIN WITTFOOTH: I did my undergrad in Illustration up in Toronto, and then obviously I did the Master’s in NY. When I entered the [SVA] MFA program I was just doing oil painting, and I was thinking that maybe during the course of the MFA program I would try different mediums, but I always kept coming back to oil painting. This is also at the same time I think Digital Illustration was really taking off. It seemed like there was a lot more. More efficient ways to do Illustration than I was happy with? Y’know, I just was never drawn to doing digital work for myself. When I think about all my inspirations, they generally tend to be the 19th century painters and before that. Trying to channel some of that as I started progressing, both in the technique of painting, but also with the personal ideas that I wanted to come across, I kept looking at those sources for inspiration. So, a lot of 19th century painters for instance, this is not stuff you’d want to give yourself four – five days to execute. You need time, right?
MW: The nature of oil too, is it dries slow so you have to be cognizant of layered drying time and stuff, so, more and more while I was at the MFA I was realizing like, ‘look, even if I wanted to be an Illustrator who paints, I just don’t paint efficiently enough.’ I don’t work efficiently enough for it to make any sense. I started to feel more and more comfortable just with the idea of letting a painting come together in the time span it needs to come together over. At the same time, I was really starting to get hung up on a personal vocabulary in my work. That’s what the MFA was really good for too, the independent assignment. I found myself just really being like, ‘look, so many people throughout history have the human figure for the subject matter.’ Certainly some of my favorite paintings of all time feature human characters in them. But when I was formulating my own style, if you want to call it that, I did play around with the human figure as something that I could manipulate to create a style, but then I realized I don’t really want to go for style. I want to go for something that is divorced from the idea of having to distort things to make them look uniquely like my own. A lot of illustration courses are really stipulating, to stand out you have to have your own style going on, but what I realized is something else I ought to do. Which is to not work with the human figure at all in my work. In fact, get rid of it all together. I thought about this more and more as time has progressed and I’ve been developing my own work. I’ve felt that often when I look at paintings with human figures in them, I’m looking at somebody else’s story, you know? Somebody else is in that painting, hence, I’m not in it. Like I said, some of my favorite paintings have human figures in them but there’s still that distance. Even if it’s a portrait painted by someone like Velasquez, Ingres, somebody like that. Yeah they’re in the room with you, but at one point I started realizing there’s a way that I can have the human that is looking at this painting be not just an observer of the painting. More like taking the idea of the viewer as a passenger. They’re in the car with you.
MW: But they, in a sense, they kind of, hopefully feel like a collective response in someway, what I’m presenting. A lot of my work over time started to really explore this idea of man made landscapes or man manipulated landscapes with no human beings left in them. So in a sense a lot of my work, in fact 95% of it probably, features animals as the protagonist in them. In presenting animals, I’m sort of playing with the idea that there’s universal complications we attribute to the animal form. In certain ways a lot of my paintings have become portraits of human nature, just that they’re taking a symbolic form.
RJ: Yeah, yeah, I see that.
MW: The point I just made before, in doing that, I’m also hoping that they’re being kind of like human elements in the paintings but just not human figures in them. I still want us to feel like ‘we created this’, like we definitely have a responsibility for what unfolds in these paintings. We ourselves, we will have some kind of human agent in them, that we can sort of project the whole story onto. It becomes our story that way, y’know? So that is a roundabout way of getting to where I’ve eventually come with my work. Just to backtrack a little, with the MFA being where I kind of got the idea in the first place. I graduated in 2008 and then, in that same year 2007-2008 I ended up having my first solo show in LA. That show was kind of like the very first attempt at whatever’s come since. Looking back at, especially working on this book that I’m coming out with, to me, ancient images. Things that I was doing during school. I see the seed in those paintings for where it went, there’s no real separation, it’s definitely my work. But if the training wheels were still on back then.
RJ: How many pieces have you completed in this series since then? Rough number.
MW: Let’s see… my book that’s coming out is a 125 pages, out of which there’s an image generally on every other page. I would say anywhere from probably in the range of 70 to 100 paintings. It’s a little tough to nail down, I omitted a fair amount of images from the book. The book goes all the way back to 2008. In fact, there’s a painting in this series that I think I completed as I finished my MFA. It was the last month or something, when we were putting our thesis together. I think it was still in that series, but it was the only one that made it into the book. From school up until now, we’re looking at pretty much exactly six years, I’d say upwards to 100 pieces.
MW: That’s… maybe a lot? [Laughs]
RJ: [Laughs] That’s great.
MW: Yeah! I feel like the real turning point happened for me in 2010. I had this one show in Seattle, then that became more specifically thematic than my work had been before. If you were to call it, an umbrella theme, that goes for my work is the intersection or division that we’ve created between us and nature. Mankind as a whole, the collective we. Often a thing that’s featured in a lot of the work, at least in the older work, is environmental destruction, but I think in 2010 I ended up popping on to this idea. If that’s the big umbrella theme, let’s say there’s little avenues that become a little more specific. So, 2010 was a point when I realized okay, now I have this big theme to play off of, but now I kind of started dissecting it into these smaller and smaller parts, you know? So since then, everything that I’ve done has been some facet of that. I’ve ended up exploring stuff such as the destructive nature of religious faith as one thing. One show it was entirely based on old painting or sculptures that featured martyrs. People who sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed in the name of their religion. Now fast forward to the 21st century, I feel like the idea of a martyr in the 21st century is a very horrifying thing, it’s going to exist for a long time. I happen to believe that we might be headed towards some kind of collective solution here where we can all get along, but I think so long as those kinds of faith structures are in place there’s always going to be this corporal divisions between ideologies of one another. They’re just not mutually compatible. That was one theme. 2012 was also when Occupy Wall St was happening, that became the premise for that show. Within the structure of all those series, the underlying premise is societal and cultural confusion. The name of the book I’m coming out with in Babel, based off the biblical myth of the tower of Babel. The tower of Babel goes like this: Mankind at one point came from the east and they all had one language. They decided to create a city with a tower in the center of it, the tower extending so high it would reach right up into heaven. They started working on this thing, it was all cohesive, they have this one language, they’re all banded together. And then the biblical God, jealous as he is, looks down and is ‘This shit can’t stand man.’ They’re being way too defiant, arrogant, whatever. God comes down and confuses everybody with speech. He inserts multiple languages. All of a sudden the workers can’t understand each other anymore. Mankind loses any kind of coherence amongst each other, scatters across the world and no longer understands one another or one another’s intent. There’s a parallel with that myth with what’s going on today, which is, we haven’t only lost a sense of coherence amongst one another. There’s Israel and Palestine, the Gaza strip being one, the middle east and the west, Russia in there as well. It’s a confusion of languages, metaphorically speaking. Now that that one side says one thing, one side says another, there can’t be any understanding. Conflicts will ensue.
I also think that overarching over all of that also, is that we’ve lost a sense of understanding the nature that we come from, y’know?
MW: Our own nature and nature itself. I kind of put it this way in my last artist statement: Nature has ceased to be our temple and has instead become our playground. It’s just that if we understood, if we knew what we were dealing with, in regards to nature, and operate in a balanced fashion with it, I think that we’d be looking at a much more pleasant existence for everything on Earth. I’ve been exploring this realm for a long time, but I guess recently I’ve decided the next series that I want to embark on, that will consist of the shows next two years, is about the revelations provided by plant based psychedelics. I’ve been really interested in seeing, just from my own experiences. I’ve had many, many where it’s become undeniable to me that there’s some inherent truth to this. There’s one called Ayahuasca that a lot of people seem to know about, some people don’t.
RJ: Yeah, that sounds familiar actually.
MW: Yeah, it’s a brew that they create in the Amazon that is the culmination of the bark of the vine of one plant and the leaves of another plant. The mixture of these two plants, there’s no other ingredients mixed in, there’s no human agent in these regards, but the bark of the vine allows the other plant to do is release the thing in the plant called Dimethyltryptamine, DMT. DMT is endogenously produced in our brains. Our pineal gland produces it. When you sleep, every time you dream, you’re under the influence of DMT. Now, the thing is the vine, it’s so strange they were able to figure this out. This is a very very ancient tool, I mean this has been used for thousands of years, but now it’s exploding onto the western cosmology. It’s in a sense, at the most critical time perhaps in history, that very strangely enough, this thing is coming out of the jungle and waking people up. Y’know maybe… wear your tin foil hats all you want and stuff, but having a couple of Ayahuasca experiences, significant ones, I realized that, no, this really is a strange kind of portal into nature. Nature in the most truest sense of the word, there’s a lot. You can just type in Ayahuasca, there’s even TED talks about it that are turning heads. This is not just some sort of neo-hippie revolution that’s happening. Y’know? I think with plant based psychedelics especially, there’s some really interesting research pointing to how beneficial these things are in opening consciousness. I want to start tying this whole thing into my work. These are the follies of many, many decades.
RJ: Generations even, yeah.
MW: In the last few decades, it’s hit this terrifying momentum where we’re really starting to notice that, no, the climate itself is being changed by our ignorance. All types of other shit too, but that’s a huge one. The weather patterns and stuff that we’re seeing all over the world, it’s obviously us just not living in equilibrium with the natural world. What’s strange is at the same time, right about now, out comes these strange things that have existed and have been in use for a very long time. To wake up the western mind back to the idea that, nature is a sacred thing that we have. There’s no way of returning humankind to some kind of hunter gatherer existence, there’s far too many of us to set up structures. That doesn’t work, but what definitely can and has to happen is we have to return to a more archaic way of thinking about the world. By archaic I mean back to a time when Mother Earth was the thing that we worshipped, not some made up jealous sky god, y’know? It’s just that those ideologies will still exist and they’re very alive and well today. I think that the more people get more informed, people actually embark on having these experiences themselves and talk to people who’ve had them. I feel that that there’s hope that a big critical mass of people who can influence the direction that we’re all going in, that they wake up right now. The time is here that we’ve got say ‘fuck the sort of status quo that’s in place.’ Also governments that would sanction shit, like let’s say Alcohol and Tobacco. Tobacco in the form of cigarettes, they’re destructive. They’re terribly destructive, obviously. We know many, many cases where both of those substances kill people flat out, they cause chaos and other shit among people who abuse them, right? Meanwhile on Schedule 1 you have a class of drugs including all the psychedelics, among which are substances our bodies create endogenously. We’re all walking around with Schedule 1 drugs in our own bodies. Things like DMT and such that you can smoke, they’re so at odds with sanctioned ones, Alcohol and Tobacco. They happen to sit in this particularly illegal category for the simple reason that should people really start looking at those things seriously, like people are now, the way shit’s been run up to this point, corporations running amuck, politicians being corrupt and stuff like that, that would cease to be.
RJ: Yeah, it would challenge their perspectives, it would change everyone’s way of seeing everything, for sure.
MW: That perspective has been in place for a very long time, it’s the way that shareholders make money, the shit is being kept in line because there hasn’t been enough people asking the right questions. I think that the time for asking questions has never been more critical than now. Asking questions and acting in a way that shakes up the current track we’re on, because the current track we’re on is fucked.
RJ: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely.
MW: This is a very lengthy way of saying my next series, the umbrella theme is there. What is mankind’s collective responsibility, or more along the lines, what is mankind’s collective influence and separation from the natural world that we’ve all emerged from. Now I’m kind of looking at what could be a way back to it. It could get more psychedelic, in a way it’s going to become more tied in with the idea of Shamanism but still with the kind of landscape that has been shaped someway by man. I feel like maybe the next series that I do, perhaps naively so, is going to be one of my more hopeful series. I’ve had my share of experiences that have given me a lot of hope that we still got a chance at this, but we have to all become courageous enough and start realizing that as a species we’ve got to fucking wake up right now. [Laughs] I’ve come across enough people and enough sort of accounts of these things, where people start a rallying cry, going like, ‘yeah you know what, there is a chance at this.’ We just have to reject the old models that are driven purely by materialism and by keeping the ship shooting a straight line when there’s an iceberg up ahead.
RJ: Something else, the business aspect of what you do. How do you sell your work? What has been the most effective way for you to sell?
MW: I keep saying this to people, there’s never been a better time to do what we do than today. Despite the fact that there are many, many more people, too, who claim to be artists. The tagline, ‘I’m an artist’ is something coming up more than ever before and this is a good thing, a very good thing. Though what it means is there’s more people technically, sort of, competing with you, but what I have never believed in is art is in any type of competition at all. Yes there’s X amount of sort of gallery show slots that can be filled or whatever, but I think that at the end of the day, if somebody sticks with something or starts developing something that just becomes really uniquely their own and they love to do that thing, it will find a market. Somebody will gravitate to it if it’s good, objectively speaking if it’s good. So anyway, I would say the reason it’s the best time for anyone, whoever, say, paints for a living: the internet has facilitated all these kind of connections among people. That’s not how it used to be, not that long ago, going back 20 years, which is not a long time at all. I’m trying to fathom what it would have been like. First of all, when you’re getting your work shot, you would have to get a photographer to shoot a slide, a transparency. Then you would have to get that processed into some sort of printed material. Send that printed material to one of a few cities that would maybe have galleries in them? I don’t even know how the hell it would work.
MW: I don’t even know how it would work. Would you shlep your paintings around? This is why people had to live in New York City or Paris or London, depending on what time period you’re looking at to have any shot at all. It would probably come down to being a lot of your job would have been schmoozing and kind of being at the openings and stuff to try and rope somebody to come in and look at your work. Nowadays, the way it’s worked, at least for me, is you know you produce work, as soon as it’s done, we all have access to cameras that can shoot work in progress shots, whatever, images that are close enough to the real thing, that if you post them online X amount of people can see them. It can just instantly, five minutes later, you could very well have some gallery director emailing you from who knows where going, ‘This is a cool image. Do you want to be in this group show?’ Whatever, you know? So it’s all odd for galleries at this point, because collectors are very savvy now. There’s a bunch of collectors who follow a certain artist and they’re up to date on what they’ve just produced because artists themselves have their own networks. They post something, people can see it. Often you can end up selling work directly to a collector. That said, what I think is great now, in my own case, the internet as a kind of tool to get my work seen just in digital format has led to certain key gallery directors that I’ve wanted to work with. Certain galleries who then set up an actual studio meeting, then they see the work in person and we get a dialog going about doing a show. I’m in this sort of privileged position, in a sense, because I’ve managed to find just very few galleries that I really want to work with at this point. That’s where I’m putting all of my efforts, as far as doing these personal series, and in between just to bankroll what I’m doing, taking out commissions as well. I think I’ll have a long enough list of work for people to reference that. When it comes to a commission or stuff like that they’ll often pick out pieces that I’ve done in the past that have something about them that they like and then I’ll still end up having freedom. I never want to end up in a spot where I sort of have these go to images and rehashing stuff. No matter what it is, if it’s a commission, but definitely when it’s a personal series, I’m always trying to search a new avenue. Coupled with the commissions and galleries I work with now, it’s become a good balance where it feels like what I’m doing now either sells either directly in terms of commissions or via the galleries that I’m working with. I think at this point, even if it’s new collectors coming to the table I think I have enough work that if they reference back to what I’ve been doing in the past few years, I guess they get a sense. If it’s a commission, they’re going to get a piece that they like or if they’re going to invest in a personal piece they’re making a decent investment because I’m not just straight out of the gates. All those things combined have led to how I’m able to finance what I’m doing, but as I said if it wasn’t for the internet and the power of the internet being this global tool and very efficient… shit, I have no idea. I would still be doing this, I just don’t know how well I’d be doing it to be honest.
MW: I’m living upstate now full time, at least over the summer, and I’m two and a half hours away from NY. So it’s not prohibitive in the sense that I can come down when I need to, but I certainly don’t feel that I need to be in NY that much. I go to some key openings and stuff like that, but for the sake of creating new connections with galleries. The internet is allowing it so that I’m not spending half my time trying to wheel and deal my way into some new relationship, you know? That said, for anybody just starting out doing art of any kind right now, there really, legitimately, hasn’t been a time like this ever in the history of painting, illustration any of that. I think that any youngins coming up right now, if they have anything to complain about, I highly urge them to have an objective look at where we’re at. You can spend so much more time actually creating stuff now and you have such insane resources. If I’m ever at a lack of inspiration or whatever, it would be nice to go down to the library every day or down to The Strand, but no, I can just type in some key words and spend maybe a full hour looking at image after image after image. When has it ever been like that too? For a long time, if you wanted to see anybody’s work and get any kind of inspiration out of it, you’d have to hunt galleries all the time. That’s still a really good habit to be in. Whenever I can I’ll do the rounds in Chelsea, go see the museum shows whenever they’re rotating. I’m just saying that if one wants to build up a library of inspirations or motivational imagery, whatever, it’s right there. Yes, it’s in digital form but it gives a very good basis to the formulation of visual ideas.
RJ: Speaking of, who are some of your favorite artists? Is there anyone that you’re looking at right now?
MW: Yeah, oddly enough for this next series, might not seem to make a lot sense, but Rodin. Auguste Rodin the sculptor. I was in San Francisco right after my Seattle show in May, and he had already been on my mind a little bit. They have Rodin’s all the way up at the MET, which I’d come across. Then, in San Francisco they have the Legion of Honor, which is this not exactly hidden museum, but when people stumble into it they’re like ‘Holy shit, I didn’t realize..’ this that and whatever, paintings and sculptures. They have a big Rodin wing, I think they have the most amount of Rodin’s in North America. It just so happened I walked in there, spent a really long time just absorbing the physicality of the sculptures. I have Rodin book but it doesn’t carry nearly as well as seeing stuff in person, his sculptures have this beautiful way. The figures are distorted, here and there, often to create a sense of displaced weight. Especially when it’s made in bronze, which is most of the time. His sculptures have such a great way of suggesting that things are heavier than they seem. There’s big knuckles and big feet and really dynamic poses. Having looked at his stuff and just then starting to think of this new series, I’m well underway of formulating that whole idea. He’s been somebody who’s been super influential right now. So I’m looking at his sculptures and then translating by some weird filtration process. What can I take away from the dynamic of his sculptures and translate them to my paintings. He never seems to deal with animal subjects either so there’s that step and the act of sculpture through painting, but essentially the idea would be to take certain aspects of the weighty-nes. The distortion, and see how it would translate to these animals that in this next series, that are going to basically be portraits of Shamans in a way. They’re also going to be posed in rapture, there’s going to be this tension between are they suffering or are they in bliss. Just that body dynamic and the kind of poses that I want to play off. There’s something Rodinesque about that. Rodin’s done a lot of pieces where they look agonizing but at the same time they look very transcendental as well. It’s a cool sort of duality in his work that I want to translate into my own. He would be one, but man there’s just too many.
If I’m going back, there were a lot of artists from the 19th century based in France and Britain. That was one movement. To some degree, the pre-raphaelites, though I find a lot of their subject matter kind of escapist. It’s just that they turn to the natural world to be their muse. That’s something that I find to be the case in my work as well. There’s a bunch of people also, contemporaries would be Vincent Desiderio, Odd Nerdrum. There’s this guy, Justin Mortimer, doing very dark stuff. Just the way that they’re challenging conventions of how to compose a piece. Technique-wise a few of those dudes have really influenced me to think large with my work and also to not just use the same kind of brushes all the time. Palette knives and stuff going on. That would be a good summary of sort of the main inspirations, and of course I’ve haunted the MET and the Frick collection a lot too. What I don’t tend to find much inspiration from to be honest is modern, post modern, contemporary. Especially when we’re getting into, like, abstract expressionism and minimalism. If I get anything out of that, often it’s minimalism. The room itself, that the thing is displayed in usually the thing that gives it any presence. It’s influenced how I think to display my work. One of my least favorite ways to display my paintings is the context of an art fair, like in Miami or Armory show, things are just getting stacked and hung salon style. This is a loaded term but I like for art to have a sacred space to be viewed in. Which is to say that if it’s you and that painting interacting, not something at your periphery nagging at you. I think that that’s something that I also think of. It’s sort of resistance to what’s going on now, with so many people being so fucking distracted by these devices. You see at restaurants and bars a whole table of people, no one seems to be talking to each other at all, they’re in these phone worlds, you know?
RJ: [Laughs] Yeah
MW: I think that art, in a similar way, shouldn’t be so dime a dozen. Even epic pieces. Sometimes I go to Miami Art Basel and there’s a great painting, but that lit up blinking neon light is drawing me there too and as soon as I’m looking at that some other shit is going on. The point of all that rant is in formulating a new series I have coming up, I’m hung up on getting the floor plans of the places I’m going to display my work in. I want to make sure I’m really creating each painting for each wall. The whole thing has this cohesive feel to it. That’s maybe one thing I get as an inspiration from, say, shows that go through the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the MoMA , which aren’t usually ones that I go to. There are of course exceptions, there was show up at the Guggenheim recently… what’s his name, James? [James Turrell] He turned the Guggenheim into a whole interactive space where there were lights that were slowly fading into one another. I don’t know if you remember, it was maybe like a year, maybe half a year ago. Stuff like that, there’s certainly something great and inspiring about that with regards to how I paint and what I paint as often. Often 19th century and before or some contemporaries have really rejected the notion that art should be this linear thing that follows certain movements to be valid. I think we as an art society are rejecting that. In the 20th century, it’d probably be really tough to do anything resembling what I’m doing. So much of 20th century art had to fit to a specific movement, a specific manifesto. If you’re outside of that you’re an illustrator. Anyway, I hope that answers the question.
RJ: Final question! Completely off topic from everything else. What famous person living or dead would you get in the ring with?
MW: [Laughs] Like beat the shit out of?
RJ: [Laughs] It could be a Fight Club scenario, you want to fight.
MW: That’s a good question, let’s see, maybe… I’d have to say Jackson Pollock.
MW: [Laughs] He seemed like a decent thinking dude. I like to think of art as being this testament and the celebration of the beauty of the higher self, and by that I don’t mean that if you have somebody like Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade. Bob Ross is great, don’t get me wrong, there’s just something so absurd about that idyllic way of looking at art. What I mean is, when I think of art that really moves people or at least me, really moves me, it’s labor intensive. There’s so much time and focus and attention and just love being poured into the thing, it often results, in the best cases, it results in you as a viewer not just being spoon fed a certain feeling. You’re feeling torn in different directions, but often the human experience is often made up of the melancholic, tragedy meeting with hope. Often those are the pieces that really spoke to me, then you insert someone like Jackson Pollock. That whole way of creating artwork is almost saying ‘fuck you’ to spending hours and hours in the studio, laboring over ‘are you getting that red atmosphere across?’ It’s just, maybe his work seems to be the thing that really launched into motion the idea that art can be just throwing some paint on something as your expression of something. It sure is, it sure can be, but for that to be held up as equally valid as lets say, the Sistine Chapel, is well… dumb. [Laughs]
MW: Yet at the same time, maybe it was an important thing. Maybe I need to read more art theory, but I really am nauseated at the thought of going that far down that rabbit hole. I just feel like there’s so much art that has come since, that art can be representational. There has been such a big stigma around representational art in the late part of the 20th century and carrying on into the 21st century, to a lot of people it’s banal or passe to be exploring representational imagery through painting. When at the end of the day, if you’re not looking to connect with the viewer through devices like that occasionally, then it just becomes a dialogue among art theorists just speaking amongst each other. Anyone else isn’t even invited into the room. There have been museums where regular people are like, ‘what the fuck am I looking at?’ It doesn’t seem that whatever the intent behind the work is, is in the artist statement. I don’t want it to be in the way, having to read someone’s manifesto to respond to the thing that’s being created. The thing itself ought to tell me something. So…. yeah, fuck Jackson Pollock.
RJ: [Laughs] Alright.
MW: I think that’s going to piss some people off, but whatever.
RJ: Fuck those people.
MW: Fuck them too! Yeah, that’s fine by me.