Susannah Martin exposes the human form in naturalistic and photo realistic scenes. On canvas, her vividly painted subjects interact with land and animal and express a contemplative curiosity. Through them, Martin speaks to themes such as the German political landscape and she makes clear her rich understanding of the history of art. Empty Kingdom first featured her works in March 2013.
When I look at your works, I find myself enveloped into a peaceful yet curious silence—I experience a similar reaction to Giovanni Segantini’s work. Does any particular art historical time period speak to you?
I can see why you would draw an analogy between my work and Segantini. I think that the period in art history which speaks to me the loudest is the renaissance in the Netherlands and Germany. Particularly artists like Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Van der Goes, Hans Holbein and sometimes Dürer, although he strikes me as more self-obsessed than the others. Rubens also came along later in that corner of the world and is very, very important to me. But it is the early renaissance painters van Eyck, Memling and Holbein to whom I return the most. I think it is not only the technical brilliance of their work but their extreme earnestness and depth that attracts me. There is an intensity in beliefs and psychological sensitivity in those works that floors me. It is hard for the contemporary viewer to imagine the concentration of mind and spirit independent of self-conscious style which went into that work so they strike us often as strange. I like strangeness in art as it is usually a sign that the artist was tapping into an authentically unique position.
Could you fit your work into the paradigm of any 18-20th century art movements?
Sure, but not exclusively into one. The Romantic Movement has had a strong influence on me, particularly on the American side with the Hudson River School landscape painters. People often find similarities between my work and the Pre-Raphaelites. I love that movement, but I can´t quite imagine adopting a pre-renaissance position hundreds of years after the fact the way they did. That seems very staged or fashioned to me. With all of the past influences which can clearly be discerned in my work, it is still very contemporary. The early Realists and Naturalists are very important to me, of course. While I was studying in art school, Pop Art and Photorealism played a very important role for figurative painters and it´s impossible to imagine my work coming to be without either of those movements.
What is like to have the same name as an accused witch at the Salem Witch Trials?
Ha ! Accused, convicted and executed. That poor woman. She was innocent, as they all were. It doesn´t affect me at all though. My brother says that our parents must have had one twisted sense of humor choosing my name though.
Right now, it seems that you have a very clear interest in particular subject matter. How has your art arrived at this point? What kinds of concepts did you explore when you first began to make art?
I started with people and I have gone back to painting people. In between, there was about a 20 year period of painting large scale murals and backdrops for businesses, private homes as well as film and photography sets. During that time I never had a chance to paint people, which ultimately made me very unhappy. I had a very brief phase of painting abstractly during art school, but that did not satisfy me. I need the direct inter-human confrontation which figurative painting can offer.
To what extent are your paintings utopian? In what ways do they distract and diverge from your utopian conception?
I think when I first began painting the nudes, they had a certain utopian quality to them, but what I was going for actually was frank realism. I take my people outside and photograph them naked. In the beginning, I was painting them as close to what I saw as I could get. Lately, I have been manipulating the situations much more in order to follow more sociological, even political, directions. That is something which is developing in my work. Actually, I think I am simply allowing them to be more blatant with their socio-political commentary. That intention was always there, and there is a subversive nature to how I approach the nude, but I have been quiet about that in the past. I´m getting tired of being quiet about it, I guess.
At times, the animals in your work have a spontaneous energy. The falcons in Descent – the fish in Anglerin – the frog in Morning Swim. These animals appear less realistic and more illustrative than the rest of their respective works. How do you approach the human subject and the animal subject differently? What do you paint first: the human or animal? Why?
I´m not sure if they are painted less realistically or if they simply seem less realistic because of the staged effect of their activity. Bringing in the animals has allowed me to depart from an overly strict realism, which was beginning to annoy me. The possibility of the scenarios which have been developing in my paintings recently, is extremely unlikely. Crossing over that line has been very liberating for me. At the same time, it is more frightening. Strict realism was a much safer way to work. I paint the humans and the animals at the same time. They are conceived in the painting from the beginning and they are as equally important as the humans and the landscape.
Tell us more about Hirte. Is the man signaling the gesture of benediction with his left hand? What is the significance of the French horn?
Yes, he is which is absurd. There is a woman sneaking up from behind him with a branch of Laurel leaves with which she will mock him by wrapping a faux crown around his head. Hirte means “Shepherd” in German and the title refers to that man. This raises a few questions; does this man really believe that he is Jesus? Is he deranged or is he high out of his gourd? Perhaps that is why he needs the supporting hand of the lady to his right whose identity is not revealed. Perhaps this is a hippie love fest and he is tripping on LSD and needs to deliver his messages to the crowd of animals, women, and children who seem to show little interest in him. Or, perhaps he truly is an enlightened master and no one is listening to him. One thing is for sure: our lady with the horn is having a good laugh at his expense. She can afford to do so as she holds the highest of all art forms, music, in her hands. She is art, the creator and in complete control of what will and will not happen in this theatrical happening.
“Purity” is a word that comes up consistently throughout your statements and interviews. Considering that it is a subjectively defined term, loaded with religious and gendered connotations, how do you reconcile the nude as something pure with its socio-anthropological qualities?
Well yes, I am using that word subjectively, how else could I use it? I have used that term referring to nudity as man´s pure form. I was not thinking of the word pure in a religious sense, as in chaste, or virginal. Nor was there any connection with the gender of my subjects. I meant the word literally as in undiluted, straight-up, no additives or conservatives. When speaking about a nude person, the additives would be clothing. But also accessories, jewelry, iPhones, etc. A nude person cannot project an identity through fashion or acquired symbols of status. He or she can only be taken in in their purest, undiluted form: as human.
In the information about Primordial Tourists, you set up a history of the nude as somewhat linear and teleological. Have we arrived at the outcome? How do you see the progression—or more accurately, the digression—of the nude and its reception?
We have hardly reached the outcome; it´s more likely that we have only just begun. Certainly, concerning the female artist’s contribution to the history of the nude, we are in an early phase, relatively speaking. Women look at the body in a very different way than men do and this is reflected in the difference between how female artists approach the nude and how male artists approach the nude in art. This is a whole new spectrum of perspectives which have been unleashed, and I think it´s very exciting to watch and be part of. I also feel that the nude in art has been liberated to some degree as a result of the rise of a multi-billion dollar porn industry. Originally, the nude certainly was portrayed at least partly, for erotic purposes. Now, with the glut of pornography performing that role, perhaps it is more possible for the nude in art to confront broader issues of body, mortality, and the human condition. I feel like that is what´s happening. Not that the nude in art cannot be concerned with sexuality, but I think that even there, a different level of meaning comes out when it is not exclusively in the service of providing arousal. As far as the reception of these contemporary nudes is concerned, I would say it is mixed. Many people still believe that a nude has to be first and for most sexually appetizing and are genuinely upsetting if it is not. There are, however, just as many people who are open to consider other perspectives. Our animal nature remains the same, but our consciousness is expanding.
What are you currently working on?
I have another monster in the works. A large canvas called Bavaria. It is the first of my attempts to take on overtly political content. The painting is my reaction to our experience of the refugee crisis in Europe, which has been going on for years but which reached epic proportions last September. Specifically, it deals with Germany´s role in handling this crisis. I am American by birth but have been living in Germany since 1991. As you know, refugees from Syria and all over the world have been pouring into Germany, and the other European nations that have allowed them in, at a rate of as much as 10 even 15,000 a day since September. This painting has to do with national identity and the radical changes that are taking place within it as a result of the refugee crisis. I first started working on it when Merkel announced that the borders would be opened and that there would be no limit to the amount of refugees that Germany would take in. At first, there was a type of apprehensive Euphoria which swept the country. The amount of people here who volunteered to help, and are still doing so, is phenomenal. But of course, there is the dark side. Fear and nationalism threaten to tip the more or less peaceful situation at any moment. The painting takes place at Königssee in Bavaria. Königssee has a national treasure quality to it similar to that of Yosemite in the USA (which I am also working on a large painting, by the way). The landscape has a rich history and strong presence in the German national psyche. This history includes the fact that Hitler had his summer home in Berchtesgaden, Obersalzberg, in this area. I have stumbled upon photos of him and his dog on the shore of Königssee. So, in this painting, a group of nude revelers are gathered at the banks of Königsee. A young German girl throws gummy bears into the air in a spirit of joyful generosity. She is Merkel´s “ Willkommenkultur,” the “welcome culture.” However, the girl comes along with a pack of large German Shepherd dogs; these dogs are representatives of the other side of the German national character, the history and qualities of which I don´t think I need to go into here. In the center of the painting is a dark skinned man, our foreigner or refugee, who is surrounded by white folks and dogs. There is a rather terrified look on his face and it is unclear whether he will be able to catch a gummy bear and take part in the celebration of the good life, or if he will be eaten alive by the dogs. That is the open question which I am proposing and it is up to each of us to decide which way he or she wants the story to end.