Exhibition Dates: Oct 13 – Nov 12, 2011
Opening Reception: Thursday, October 13 (6-8pm)
Lyons Wier Gallery; 542 West 24th Street, NYC, NY

Words: Dexter Wimberly
Images: Courtesy of Martin Wittfooth

Artist Martin Wittfooth’s new exhibition, The Passions opens at Lyons Wier Gallery this month. I sat with him in his Brooklyn studio to explore his exciting new body of work.

You have an exhibition opening on Oct 13 at Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea. What is the primary theme of this current body of work?

With The Passions I wanted to start exploring something I’ve spent a fair amount of my time musing over and having ongoing dialogues with people about: the destructive nature of blind faith. Specifically in this series, I’m interested in exploring the idolization of violence, self-sacrifice and suffering that are central to the faith-based notions of martyrdom and sainthood. Saints and martyrs appear in blood-soaked abundance in the histories and holy texts of the dominant religions of the world, and however civilized and enlightened we may think of ourselves in the 21st Century, we don’t need to strain ourselves all that much to witness and admit that these ideologies are still held sacred by an alarming percentage of the population.

There is a double-meaning to the title of the show. In Western philosophy, “the passions” refer to biological instincts or strong emotions that seduce one away from reason, whereas the Latin origin of the word is passio, which means, simply: suffering. The idea of the abandonment of reason tied together with the act of suffering is, at the heart of it, what this new work is really about. This term is of course consequently connected to the most famous of all acts of martyrdom—the crucifixion of Christ. People fight, suffer and die globally to this day and presumably for centuries to come over their notions of what is “holy”. I find this absurd, and feel the need to comment on it.

I was really interested in soaking up the imagery and symbolism of classical art that dealt with this subject (examples of which there are, of course, thousands), so a lot of my new pieces are making references to these old works. This was in an effort to bridge the gap between the archaic and the contemporary, on both the level of the imagery itself and the ideological connotations underneath.

Fire makes an appearance in one form or another in each of these new pieces and often as a stand-in for a halo. Traditionally, of course, the halo denotes a state of holiness, yet portrayed in the form of fire, I’m alluding to the destructive underpinnings of blind piety.

How does this new work differ from your prior paintings?

My work, up to this point, hasn’t been targeting as specific a theme as I’m exploring in The Passions. My previous work has alluded primarily to environmental concerns, the changing face of the man-to-nature relationship, political and personal themes in broad, sometimes subtler strokes. I decided to go for a more focused idea this time, and was interested in finding ways to tackle this concept by using the same visual vocabulary as I’ve been developing over the past few years.

There is a noticeable absence of human beings in your paintings. How did you arrive at this decision? Were humans at the center of your past works?

I decided to shed the human figure from my paintings pretty much at the inception of my personal vision, and instead have chosen to portray nature in man-made or manufactured settings. I made this decision with the idea in mind that, without a human avatar to play out the scenes that are presented, the viewer is thrust in[to] the passenger seat, and takes the role of the observer rather than the participant. My animal protagonists act as sort of mirrors for our own follies and burdens, and are playing out these scenes on a stage set by human hands, potentially making us collectively responsible for what unfolds.

There is a high degree of confrontation, even violence, depicted in your current paintings. This is a stark contrast to many of the “pretty” or decorative works on view in other Chelsea galleries. I would say that your work, while strikingly beautiful, is the antithesis of that. What is your response to that notion?

Tension and confrontation make people feel uncomfortable, and we’re naturally drawn to stimuli that doesn’t jar our nerves. I understand this impulse. I understand why someone would want to decorate their walls with artwork that simply complements their living space, just as I understand the popularity of Pop music. But I personally feel that art can and sometimes should also make an effort to comment on our actual condition, on those topics that make us feel uneasy, and the way it can achieve that is by embracing that tension, rather than shying away from it or attempting to distract attention away from it. I hope to make my own work both appealing and simultaneously challenging.

The subjects of martyrdom and sainthood has been explored throughout art history. How do you think your use of animals, instead of humans re-contextualizes these themes?

By using animals as stand-ins for saints and martyrs, I’m making an attempt at universalizing these notions: to allow these ideas to be carried across on a symbolic or allegorical level, to try and broaden the implications of what is being presented. In art history on the other hand, we see personifications of these often fictitious characters in the form of whatever model the artist worked with, and it has had the power of ascribing a certain specific visual identity to them since their portrayal in paint or in stone. It’s thanks to this fact that we think of Jesus as a suspiciously Northern European looking guy, for example, because this is how we first saw him depicted in medieval art. I’m more interested in presenting these themes in a universal way, and I believe that animal figures allow me to do that, due to their widespread symbolic connotations.

We talked a bit about Walton Ford. We are both fans of his paintings. Ford once described his work as “twisted” or extreme Audubon’s [referencing John James Audubon, the French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter who lived from 1785 to 1851]. While you are clearly expressing something very different from Walton Ford in your paintings, what have you gleaned from his animal narratives?

Walton Ford is a master at allegory: he’s very eloquent at pointing us toward a broader idea or story by the use of symbols and visual clues. There’s always something more to draw out of these images, if one cares to do a bit of research. This is really powerful work to me, and speaks directly to my own tastes: work that’s masterfully executed, but also carries deeper concepts.

A number of your new paintings will accompany this article. Can you give me a brief description of two of the most successful works in the show? What art-historical concepts or stories are each of these two paintings based upon and can you tell me about the symbolism that can be found in each?

One of the pieces included in my show is “Sebastian” (48″ x 72″, oil on canvas, 2011), which is initially a reference to Saint Sebastian, a martyr who was tied to a post or tree and shot full of arrows by Romans in Ancient Roman times. He is venerated by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, and has served as a morbid muse to many artists through history. Nobody has ever seemed inclined to depict this character in an act of whatever he may have done while still alive, but rather are compelled to depict him in the act of dying. It seems as if though it’s the brutal manner of his execution which makes him “saintly”— the steep degree of his suffering which ascribes something allegedly more sacred to his character. This drives at the concept behind this series: the ideological celebration of violence that is to be found in faiths that idolize such concepts as sainthood and martyrdom. In my painting, I’m making a simultaneous allusion to another celebration of violence that also has blatant religious underpinnings: bull-fighting, and the idea of a bull—symbol of strength, virility and so on— in a futile struggle was something that appealed to me in tackling this concept.

Another painting, “The Ecstasy” (36″ x 36″, oil on canvas, 2011), is referencing Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture, “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa” (1652). In this original piece, we witness our Saint in both lustful—one daresay orgasmic—abandon of all senses, coupled with laceration-borne anguish. There’s something both amusing and disturbing about the connotations of this concept, and also Saint Theresa’s own written account of this encounter with an angel, which the sculpture was based on. A quote from that passage sums it up rather neatly:

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

In my own piece, I wanted to set up a scene that similarly suggests both an act of violence and a state of sexual ecstasy. The hummingbird seems to be feeding off of the larger bird’s surrender, who in turn is both in pain, and as suggested by the painting’s title, in blissful ecstasy as a consequence of this penetration.

In addition to themes and symbols prevalent in Western religions, there is also striking commentary on nature and man’s impact on his environment. What inspired you to introduce that into this new body of work?

I like to inject this commentary into my work on a regular basis, to try and contribute to the dialogue of awareness, and this series is no exception. In fact, some of these new works aspire to urge us to consider the very nature of ignorance, a characteristic that I believe is alive and well in the ideologies this series is criticizing. In certain works in this series, such as “The Coronation”, we’re probably initially considering the connotations of the main figures in the composition and how they relate to the overall theme. However, what’s happening around them (the fiery collapse of the surrounding setting) becomes a peripheral element, and one that the figures in the scene seem to pay no mind to whatsoever. On the other hand, the painting, “Pieta”, makes a rather more direct allusion to our haywire environmental problem. In contemplating the “saintliness” of this scene suggested by the piece’s title and connection with the overall theme, I’m hoping to hint at the absurdity of faith that fetishizes suffering and the tragedy of ignorance.

Martin Wittfooth’s The Passions is on exhibit at the Lyons Wier Gallery October 13- November 12, 2011.

Images courtesy of Martin Wittfooth.

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