Martin boldly states, "It may seem futile to make the works seem as though they have been observed or taken from photographs, but inventing gives the work reason for existence – what is shown exists only within these painted illusions...".
Brian Sherwin: The art critic David Lee mentioned you to me when I asked him about British artists that I should look into for the purpose of interviewing. Obviously you have made an impact in the British artworld. People are taking note of your accomplishments. Did you expect your work to be embraced in this manner? Or is it still kind of a shock?
Martin Greenland: I am pleased that David Lee should mention me to you. I am pleased also that it seems to you that I have made an obvious impact on the British artworld and that people are taking note of my accomplishments. The interest shown in my work has come so slowly, has taken so long to trickle down to me, that it doesn't come as a shock. I don't often hear of it, but its nice to know that people are talking about me.
BS: Martin, you were the First Prizewinner of the John Moores 24 Exhibition of Contemporary Painting (Liverpool, 2006). How did you feel upon learning that you had won? I will assume that it has helped open a few doors for you. Do you have any upcoming exhibitions at this time?
MG: The shock you talked of in the first question came when I was told that I had won. I knew that I had been awarded one of the prizes and that it could be the first prize. When I was told this I was overjoyed - I had had four consecutive showings at the John Moores in the late 80s/early 90s but I had never been amongst the prizewinners. At last I felt that I was getting the recognition I wanted and perhaps deserved.
I had always held the John Moores in the highest esteem and still do. I really felt that it was too much to expect to win the first prize (though I considered that my painting had as much reason as any to win). When I was told I had won I suddenly felt oddly naked. It was just after lunch on the day of the private view and I was surrounded by what I felt to be very knowing, urbane paintings and similar people. I had come down from a life isolated from the rest of the artworld (partly by choice).
My reaction on winning was not what I expected of myself and I was not prepared for it. It was more a case of "Why, paintings like mine don't win the John Moores?". In front of a barrage of reporters I tried to answer questions as honestly as I could, but I never knew their reactions because they never reported it which I now think was shameful. The only thing that I can tell myself, even now, is that they just didn't get it. With others I reckon that it wasn't what they wanted to see, which is their problem of course, and which I feel is a lovely quiet victory for myself.
Most of the doors I expected to open, haven't. There has been some interest and I have certainly been busy. Some that showed interest expected to see more of the same as my winning painting, which isn't the way I work. I have been constantly working, as I have since I graduated, Surprisingly, most of the work I have sold has been in my local area, and much of it has been due to my own efforts. I would like my work to be viewed by the wider public and I am disappointed that no public galleries have come forward to offer me exhibitions or collaborations.
Times have certainly changed for painters; its probably due to my isolated position but I didn't really expect to do all the running. I was represented by a couple of London galleries for several years, but I have been without an agent for five years now. There have been a few galleries interested and there is still at least one definite hopeful which I don't want to talk about until the situation is more certain.
What I'm most concerned about is that an agent is properly interested in what I do and is prepared to get that across to the public, as well as being able to sell work. Most galleries are very tightly restricted by category or style and I know I am very difficult to categorize, which ironically pleases me. A lot of art, as we all know, is only salable because of the reputation, fame or as is too common now, the infamy of the artist. Had I been given the due publicity of the John Moores win, I don't think I would still be hunting success.
I am also disappointed that no national publications (except for The Jackdaw) have sought to feature me, as I have plenty to say and I have a very large body of work behind me. Perhaps its all what I should be happening to me, the battle is not yet won nor is it likely to be won in the present climate. I don't set out to do the expected, I don't paint what people want to see, and I suppose I shouldn't expect what usually comes with success.
BS: You have stated the following: "It’s a perfectly levelling thing to do, exploring landscape both real, as on a walk, or by completely inventing it – exploring the illusion of landscape made by the tactile breadth of oil paint. The first instance is about absorption, meditation, analysis; the second about realization, connection, revelation – a show of things more or less understood." Care to go into further detail about your art and the philosophy behind it?
MG: A walk is an exploration for me. It is perfectly levelling because I become completely absorbed in it in the same way that I do when I'm painting successfully. On a walk I'm scrutinizing everything; it all has relevance and when I'm in this position, ideas fire back at me. I may engage in what is before me by drawing (very rarely do I paint outside now) or I may just look, and it is this constant looking and adding to my knowledge of things, understanding the nature of things, that enables me to invent in the studio in a way which convinces me.
I don't paint the places or landscapes I encounter; I paint about them. They are the catalysts for my invention because invention gives me the true power of being an artist, like a composer. I need the power to be able to make changes and yet keep the paintings convincingly rooted (enough) in our 'real' world. On a walk I'm in the real world but I'm wonderfully lost in my own world which is my own interpretation of it. Here I'm taking it all in. In the studio I'm letting it all out; realizing what I have encountered, in both the understanding and making real sense of the word.
A lot of what I set out to do starts of as insistent images which enter my head. I live my life often as though I'm experiencing a waking dream, with recurring images, often very clear but fiendishly difficult to put down, flying at me, quite often unexpectedly. Many of these images evolve slowly, giving me different possibilities, and they are all somehow based on something within my experience.
I get cross pollination of idea. I will see something and it will hint at me of something else, thus a potential painting is born where I try to amalgamate both or even several visual or conceptual ideas in a work which ultimately must work as whole and must not diminish the power of any element wihin it.
As far as 'a show of things more or less understood' is concerned, I'm deliberately setting out to be ambiguous. What I really mean is that I am prepared to try to paint things or about things, some of which I had a lot of understanding and some of which I had less understanding. I'm not going to pretend that everything I paint about (including the actual paint) I understand.
BS: Martin, you have went on to say the following, "Completely inventing is an obsession, but not a chore. It may seem futile to make the works seem as though they have been observed or taken from photographs, but inventing gives the work reason for existence – what is shown exists only within these painted illusions. It’s a deeply satisfying thing to do, and oil on canvas is still the broadest, most perfect vehicle for this." Again, can you go into further detail about this... in your opinion, why is oil on canvas the best method of capturing nature?
MG: As far as a painting medium is concerned, oil is for me (and I don't think I'm the only one) the most versatile thing. Oil has gradually evolved; it has stood the test of time. It is not broken so there's little point in trying to fix it. I'm always discovering something new in it and it pleases me that technically there is still so much that I have yet to find and hopefully will find. What I do know about it, I enjoy.
I like being able to be on the edge of being in control of it, to allow the paint to dictate, to control me from time to time. I don't care for acrylic and I don't care for new developments in oil (eg. water based or heat dried). Watercolor can be beautiful but it is a medium where really all the processes and really the ideas have to be worked out beforehand and doesn't suit my need to make changes.
For my own work where realizing the unseen is paramount, a medium like photography, even with digital manipulation is out of the question. I am dedicated to producing the single image which has been carefully molded, altered, improved, enhanced, built up, considered; where every element has been brought from within me; where every illusion is an invention.
As far as canvas is concerned it is the most responsive surface and is still excellent for large paintings which makes practical sense. I continue to use it except for the smallest paintings and a well prepared canvas has a touch, a tactile quality which is so necessary for me. Increasingly I'm not afraid to embrace or acknowledge tradition.
I went into painting partly because I liked the smell of the paint, the atmosphere of the studio, the feel and sensation of all of the paraphernalia of the studio surrounding me. I was given and I used my first set of oil paints when I was eight. I entered the grown up world for the first time and I wanted to continue in that world and I will only change if I become tired of it, which I cannot see happening.
I really cannot say if oil on canvas is the best for capturing nature which is a little more specific than what I have said, but for making real what cannot be seen or what I have remembered, the medium of oil continues to be the best for me.
BS: Martin, when I view your work I see a strange connection to some of the work by Odilon Redon. Maybe it is just me... is he an influence? Also, what artists from the past have influenced you?
MG: I've certainly been interested by the oddness of Redon. I have grown to find an affinity in so much Symbolist work. My interests and what influence they have had on me come from far and wide.
I was introduced to painting from a young age and my father used to have a large collection of art postcards and he would put up one every week and after a while we (the rest of my family and myself) had to guess the name of the painter, so that eventually we became quite familiar with many artists, especially the Dutch (Hals was one of my Dad's favorites).
We also were taken to art galleries, another exciting step in experiencing grown-up things. I always had a private fascination with Vermeer. I always felt that his paintings were so different, so pure and real and unassuming, but at a young age didn't really have the ability to be able to express such thoughts.
On foundation I became interested with Hopper. I've always thought his technique to be a bit ordinary, but what interests me still is his desire to paint about the commonplace, his compositional inventiveness and his success in displaying atmosphere and time of day.
The artist who grabbed my attention most at that time was Michael Andrews, from whom I learned about metaphor and symbol and who I thought was so bold and fresh, yet was a modest artist. I really admire his ability to create a narrative and a personal language and to let his painting work on many levels, and yet never let it be dull, even if his subject might sometimes seem mundane. Only now do I find it odd and a bit funny to see how he struggled to piece images together.
His information was right there in front of him in the form of photographs. It seems that he couldn't survive without the photo. Even if the photo was the catalyst, why the compulsion to stay with it? If he had decided to eschew the photograph his inventive facility would have developed.
It was while studying Andrews that I discovered William Coldstream, who's work I really disliked. It was this dislike that made me study him for my degree. I wanted to find out why he was so admired and was such a big influence. I still find much of his painting to be unpleasant and pointless but some I like very much (I think its the subtle and the ordinary in them) and I do understand the man and why his work is as it is and of course why through a necessity a language was developed which has been adopted by so many.
Necessity and purity of reasoning has been important to me. The Renaissance and the Baroque, which I was properly introduced to at the end of my foundation really opened my eyes. After studying the 20th for two years, suddenly, at the end, my tutors were waxing lyrical about artists that modernism was supposed to have rejected. The sheer brilliance of Titian and Velasquez taught me to work hard. Seeing what they could do at the age of 19 made me try even harder to follow suit and I knew that whether they liked it or not it was all done through dedicated, manual mastery, and it was this which set me on my present course.
Anachronistic it may be but I cannot get away from the idea that the the direct use of the photo. to be a) unnecessary (why not just have the photo?) and b) a softening of potential. When many people now see my work and they admire it they usually cannot believe that I invent everything directly on canvas, as indeed Michael Richardson of Artspace thought when he came to visit me. Naturally this doesn't always help me - many people refuse to believe, but then this apparent trickery, this ability to invent is hardly the sole reason for my art's existence.
Other quite important influences range from the obvious, like Caspar David Friedrich, Corot, Courbet (as much for his revolutionary non-conformity as his painting) Theodore Rousseau, Constable (a provincial with a dedication to the honest who is still underrated and who influenced the likes of Rousseau to set in motion the change which paved the way to modernism) and Turner for his invention and non-conformist experimentation. Less obviously I admire RB Kitaj, who is another artist who visually crafts the aesthetic with the intellectual narrative and who's draughtsmanship is so sure.
BS: Robert Clarke, of The Guardian, described you as being an "eccentric neosurrealist". Do you agree with this statment? Can you describe yourself in your own words as to the connection you have with surrealism?
MG: When Robert Clarke wrote that, I wasn't so sure. When he also said that I was the 'best (neo-surrealist) we've produced', I was flattered though still unsure. It sometimes seems like damning with faint praise, when one considers the attitudes of contemporary critics not only to surrealism but also the eccentric in the age of conformity and internationalism.
The eccentric bit I do (increasingly) like. The country needs even more eccentrics in this age of sociopolitical sterilization. The surrealist bit I'm not so sure about. I have always had my own 'brand' of surrealism, but I'm not convinced by much of the rest of surrealism which when its not simply about shock its embarrassingly corny. I like to make people uncertain, but if I intend to shock it has to be very subtle and subversive.
I was never convinced by the surrealists attempt to paint dreams, although some of Magritte's (I love the Empire of Lights series and The Black Flag) feel like (some of my) dreams, and the unnerving quality of Delvaux and DeChirico work on the same level. What I do identify is the surrealists admirable attempts to make real the subconscious, though this was also done effectively by the Symbolists.
The problem with using surrealism in its more obvious visual sense today is that, unfortunately, the advertising execs. now have the means via CGI to ram the stuff down our throats - talk about using every color in the paint box. I always used my surreal attempts to create a 'suspension of disbelief ' (to quote Robert Clarke again) and I used them as metaphors to let the work say more about itself. I never used surrealism for the sake of it. Now the surreal is kept very much more in check, yet it exists in a much more powerful way because it is about tension of a certain peculiarity or oddness.
With 'Before Vermeer's Clouds' (the JM's winner) it was just this oddness, a not-rightness, which was able to make the judges do a double take. The surrealism which exists in that painting is there again for very particular reasons, but there's no space to expand on that here. Much of my new work contains even less obvious surrealism, yet there exists, I hope, that indescribable other-worldliness which makes people stop and look that necessary bit longer.
I use Robert Clarkes quote still because I find it useful for people to have as a starting point when looking at my work.
BS: Speaking of influence- where did you study art and who were your mentors? Have you kept in contact with your former instructors?
MG: I studied at Nelson & Colne College on Foundation. It was an ordinary, provincial College of FE, which at that time, (really the two years when I was there) was dedicated and vibrant and run by a large staff of committed professionals, most notably Steve McDade who is now senior at Chichester and who's pure ideology and enthusiasm along with the Photography tutor, Liz Nicol (who also taught me at Exeter - she got a post there when I started as a student) and the textiles tutor Vicky (the essence of integrity), sort of made me who I am. I am also indebted to my Dad's honesty and conviction in all things and his dedication to the common, the overlooked, the ordinary, I suppose.
On Fine Art at Exeter College of Art there was much less enthusiasm. Actually there was a casualness which wouldn't be allowed now (sadly the college as an independent institution and as a building cease to exist, having become part of the University of Plymouth, in Plymouth). The rather lax attitude at the time actually helped me in my development. It not only made me think more independently and fight for myself, it also enabled me to spend most of my time absorbed in the Devon and Wessex countryside developing my way of seeing.
I suppose the tutors could have been more demanding, yet when they spoke, what they said hit home even when it was condemnation. I recall a couple of occasions such condemnation making me sit up and start to prove myself. It was advised that I spend some time in another discipline and I spent two rewarding terms involved in photography, not to use directly in painting, but as a pure medium and it was while I was here that I know my way of looking was influenced by Walker Evans and the photographers of the American New Topographics.
I cannot thank the painting tutors enough for testing me and making me refresh my attitudes at a critical time. I especially think of the Head of Painting, Mike Mayer. His discussions about looking and drawing, color relationships, investigating through drawing, the respect that is due to everything when approached with an even gaze and so much more, mean more and more to me.
I haven't met them since I graduated (in 1985) but I was in touch with a couple of them for a while (Mike Gorman, our year head, always reminded me that it was I who chose to be an artist and that I had to work at it - nobody owed me a living. He wasn't afraid to tell us that if we wanted to carry on being artists we had to learn about how to make it in the world of the art market)
BS: I'm sure you have heard the saying, "painting is dead". Those three words have popped into the world of art on more than one occasion in the last few decades. How would you reply to that charge?
MG: Painting is Dead - for those who have stopped looking, for those who need the adulation of readers (or other followers) who will so admire their witty way with words. It makes me cross but I mustn't care. I'm not about to stop my life because those for whom art is a fashion, an entertainment, tell me to.
I also don't care when people say that painting is making a comeback. This is the age of the fast turnaround and if painting makes a comeback this year it will be dismissed again next year. I want painting to be admired for its independent qualities and if it is thus constantly unfashionable, so be it.
The fact that painting is still around, not just amongst amateurs, is proof the phrase 'Painting is Dead' is itself dead. The worst thing is the number of publicly funded institutions who partly for sociopolitical reasons and partly to put shows on that are 'callenging', are artificially denying painting to re-position itself in the artworld.
There is, it is true, a lot of repetitive, poor and pointless painting. A lot of pretty, polite decorative painting and a lot of otherwise clever and technically able artists producing very safe, very obvious work. The main thing is that for me, painting is not dead. How could something that when it flows is so thrilling, so rewarding, be dead?
Painting allows me to do what I need to do. You see I don't regard myself as an art servant, needing to satisfy the demands of influential critics, curators and collectors. I never wanted to be just an artist; I wanted to be a painter. I often consider working in other mediums, but part of my discipline is to restrict myself to painting because I have too much to do and have yet to develop and discover.
I will return to emphasize that because the illusions I create in my painting couldn't have been created using any other medium, this justifies (if justification is needed) the existence of my paintings and my practice as a painter. If I want to make real something which solely exists within my head, how else am I to do it?
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about yourself or the artworld?
MG: Sometimes I think that calling myself an artist is pretentious and sometimes I think that it is a good thing. It is on one hand a good thing to be central in a world which has no controls (in a country which is increasingly controlled) has no boundaries, no limitations, and purely reflects the individual human spirit. On the other hand this world has thrown up so many chancers, frauds, amateurs, so-so artists, copyists and show offs that sometimes one craves for regulation. However I have no wish for any return to the era of say early C19th France, with a hierarchy dictating what I can and cannot do.
Much of the time I dislike the artworld for its shallowness. I dislike the political agenda of public institutions where there is too much band-wagon jumping. I dislike that large part of the commercial world which can only sell art by category and how so much of it is run by people who really have no idea what it is like to be an artist and spend little or no time actually looking at the art ( at how many PVs does one see people actually looking, properly looking, at the art?).
I especially dislike an artworld where most people are looking over their shoulders to see whether their colleagues have made a decision as to whether a piece of art is good or not. But this is the artworld, this is its nature, and it sort of gives me a cause to work harder to bring my influence on it.
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Martin Greenland. You can learn more about Martin and his art by visiting his website: www.martingreenland.co.uk
Take care, Stay true,