Martin Wittfooth’s intensely allegorical paintings all suggest the future of the human condition — without showing a single person. The Brooklyn-based painter has transcended the illustrative genre and entered into the realm of modern masterworks, using a time-honored painterly tradition that may be painstaking, but reveals incredible depth in both medium and content. His paintings are haunting in that they have a feeling of real possibility. The familiar scenes hint of dystopia and disrepair; their animal subjects are beautiful, but also betray that something in this world is amiss. In light of the long-awaited recognition and acceptance of climate change, Wittfooth’s work has an undercurrent of forewarning about what could happen if humans don’t get our act together. We spoke to the artist about his post-apocalyptic vision, classic style, and the symbolism of using animals instead of people as subjects.
Flavorwire: Your work has an end-of-the-world feeling to it. Are your pieces meant to be about dystopian futures, or do you see them as having positive undercurrents?
Martin Wittfooth: In the past my work has envisioned some dystopian settings as a kind of visual response to the uneasy era we find ourselves in: one plagued by an unpredictable climate, political and societal tensions, persistence of religious dogmas, and so forth. There’s that old saying, “may you be cursed to live in interesting times.” I feel like there’s a wealth of “interesting” things to respond to and process through art right now — as there have been in countless previous decades as well; ours just happens to have its own set of idiosyncratic issues. I’m interested in approaching my work as visual allegories of contemporary topics — a way for me to personally process ideas about our world as it currently is, and where it might be headed.
What influences your animal-hybrid narratives?
I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks as I work, and they help to conjure up topics that I want to address in my paintings, as do conversations with friends, primarily other artists, musicians, and authors. As for the paintings themselves, I get inspiration from all over — most often but not limited to classical paintings that I see at the Met, the Frick Collection, the Brooklyn Museum, in books, and so on. The Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side has been a wellspring of ideas as well, and some elements in the various dioramas they have on display there have made cameos in my work. I try and get out to do the Chelsea gallery rounds once a month, too, because I tend to always unexpectedly stumble into one show or another that has some souvenir of inspiration to bring back to my studio.
Your work depicts a world created by mankind, but totally avoids the human form. Why did you choose to exclude people from your paintings?
I get asked this a lot. I think the simplest way of putting it is that by creating allegories with animal protagonists I speak with a symbolic vocabulary that is rather universal. There are inherent connotations in various animal forms that we all on some level understand and respond to in broad, instinctive terms. This allows for these figures to suggest themes and ideas that pertain to our — the human — condition: in a sense I aim to present portraits of ourselves in these pieces, even though a recognizable “I” or “we” are not present. Something I set out to avoid from the beginning is the projection of a human “agent” in my work: I often feel that works that feature human figures are telling someone else’s story, that whatever scene we’re witnessing is being acted out by another individual or group. I’m attempting to place my audience in the passenger seat, to feel immersed in (and collectively responsible for) the scenes I present and to see some aspect of ourselves reflected back at us.
It’s clear that you are a “painterly painter,” taking the tradition of painting very seriously. Are you interested in modern art, or more into masters?
I don’t place any barriers in front of “modern art” as a potential wellspring for inspiration and motivation toward exploring the medium. In fact, I’ve come across plenty of work created in the last few decades that has gotten me to consider different techniques that I could bring into my own painting repertoire. I’ve recently been moved to get looser and more playful with some aspects of my painting, facilitated by the fact that a lot of my canvases are getting much larger, with more room to explore.
Now that you’re an experienced artist, what do you hope to convey with your oeuvre?
That painting need not be hostage to a linear trajectory, theory, market trend, or particular degree from a particular institution. It looked to be going that way for some time, but those boundaries seem to be eroding across the board, and even if some are still in place we should feel empowered to see right past them.
What’s on the docket for you this year?
I’m working on a series of overdue commissions for the first part of the year and then beginning a new series destined for my next solo show in Seattle in May 2014. There are also a couple of museum shows on the horizon that I’m planning very ambitious works for. In the meantime, I’m hunting down some property to buy upstate to serve as a little nature-bound retreat, which is soaking up a good amount of my attention at the moment.