Painter: Brooklyn, NY
Industrial Brooklyn can be strangely quiet at night. There’s no traffic. No 42nd street neon. Just high walls, old brick, and old steel. But be assured, there’s a lot going on under the surface. Inside a particular loft, Martin Wittfooth has been painting, and painting, and painting. As soon as one canvas is finished, a fresh one goes up. It’s a constant turnaround. And there’s good reason for the productive, energetic pace.
It’s the timeliness of his subject matter. In a surge of pop-surrealism, he’s making statements about nature. Our planet has been struggling.
“I think that for a long time there seemed to be a sort of vacancy of that kind of stuff being talked about in the pop-surrealist scene, and I don’t know if necessarily the scene is yet even touching so much on it. But I decided to never really turn away from it and actually try to face up to stuff that’s disturbing me, you know?”
|The Great Parade of the Unwashed|
And does it ever work. The scene grabs you right away. The colors of that landscape. The smog. You can almost smell it. Get just a bit closer to the canvas, and that yellow-green sky might turn your stomach. It’s an instant nightmare.
I think what’s disturbing Martin also disturbs many of us. By now we’ve all read the warnings from scientists, seen documentaries on weather patterns, and heard news reports on water levels and ocean currents.
“It’s something that’s being discussed by some of the smartest people on earth who really do observe research. They’re basically saying that, I mean, let’s say the great ocean conveyor that runs through the Atlantic, if it were to stop—like, actually stop—we’re looking at an ice age of all of Europe.”
“Even all the disaster movie stuff, it’s very campy and schlocky, but at least it’s kind of suggesting that on the whole, on the collective consciousness level we do have a fear of these things, you know? So it’s an era in which I think it’s our creative responsibility to at least contribute to the dialogue on some level—not necessarily delve into specific issues, but I think that there is a sliver of responsibility. We have to at least spread the word a little bit.”
Martin has grabbed more than a sliver. Just look around his cities. They’ve deteriorated. Mankind’s influence is there, but where are the people? Try to throw yourself into the paintings. Where do you belong? You don’t. The only trace of a human being is an occasional pinup girl advertisement painted across a wall. And even they’re deteriorating.
“Up to this point I’ve been referencing people like Gil Elvgren, painting homage to them in my work, so I’ve actually put some of his pinup girls in my pieces but then modified them to suit whatever message is inherent in my work. So, I’ll have a girl riding a bomb who originally was a Gil Elvgren girl riding a hobby horse.”
“I keep going back to the pinups because it’s almost as if they’re this rallying cry for something that has already come and gone. They’re these optimistic, hopeful ads. For example, in this piece it’s an ad for oil, or something like that, so we can almost think that whatever she’s advertising almost led to whatever’s going on now.”
So, what is going on now? There’s a tension in Martin’s work, and it’s really unsettling. Place man against nature. And now try to figure out which side has won. In some cases I feel like nature has come out on top. But whenever I look a bit closer, I’m not so sure. There might not be a winner just yet. As Martin would tell me, what comes across is the idea that we’ve already screwed it up so badly that we’re gone, and now the animals are left to play out on the stage.
“The only cast members in any of my paintings are animals for the simple reason that I feel they don’t have a voice, or the voice that they have is just one of being a witness, or even victims. That’s what I suppose I want to leave the imprint of; this idea that humanity is in all the work on some level, but that it could just be an echo of us and a departure of us.”
You can almost read it in their expressions. At times it’s savage, and angry. As if the animals are revolting against what’s going on. And the birds—they’re calm somehow. A calm before the storm. Or after the storm. Look at the size of them all. Could this be what happens if they’re left to their own devices?
“I never want to really play with the idea that these could be snapshots of an actual reality. I suppose you could call it, not necessarily nightmarish, but more of a subconsciously triggered fear response to what if this could actually happen. More in the dreamlike sense of it than the real sense of it; just to bend reality enough.”
There’s something apocalyptic in the paintings, too. Mythical. Ancient. Martin is stirred by the entire Babylonian story, and in particular, the tower of Babel—that tower which was meant reach the heavens, not to glorify God, but with the intent to draw attention and glory to the builders themselves. For Martin, there’s a fascinating connection.
“I think that the parallel with contemporary conditions is the idea that we’re thinking ourselves above nature in a lot of ways. So we’re building these towers that seem to always try to surpass the natural rules and that’s upsetting the whole thing, and then we start getting all bent out of shape when nature revolts.”
“You know, there’s no consciousness behind it necessarily, and some would argue with me on saying that, but I feel that we’re upsetting the balance but thinking that we’ll always be able to control it. So I think that the tower of Babel idea keeps coming back to me as something that really ties in with a lot going on today.”
I’ll say it—once Martin’s paintings get their claws into you, it’s hard to take them out. Spend some time outside and look at what’s around you. It doesn’t matter where you call home. Just go out and look. It could be the sky, the soil, the buildings, the roads, the energy of humanity. Something in your environment will hit you like it hasn’t ever before. And for Martin’s work, maybe that’s the best measure of success.
(images c/o Martin Wittfooth)
All stories are copyright of Gregory Koutrouby and A Thousand Stories unless otherwise noted.