Conversation with Douglas Martenson
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Douglas Martenson
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: In YouTube videos A Feeling for Nature and Painting Arcadia (both by John Thornton), you credit various Tonalists as inspirations: George Inness, James McNeill Whistler, Alexander Helwig Wyant, John Francis Murphy, Robert Swain Gifford, Henry Ward Ranger, Charles Warren Eaton, Mitchell Bannister, and the Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and their greatest practitioner, Frederic Church. Would you say that you mix Romanticism and Realism differently than your predecessors? Also, does the issue of climate change differ from 19th-century paintings that depict the scourge of industry and collective loss of innocence?
Douglas Martenson: The influence of the artists you mentioned, and of Tonalism in general, culminated for me in a show I curated at the PAFA Museum in 2014, The Artist’s Response to Nature: Tonalism, Historical and Contemporary. The show resulted from my search for and being inspired by artists who I felt went beyond depicting the landscape. In my Curator’s Statement, I wrote: “The American tradition of Tonalism valued solitude in the contemplation of nature. Tonalist paintings bring colors together that are finely attuned to the subject matter in such a way as to create a thoroughly harmonious image. From modern Tonalist painters back to their predecessors, all share a common thread which is the belief that an image should be felt as well as seen, invoking a poetic and meditative state that is romantic at its core.”
DM: As for the Hudson River School, I’ve been very excited about some new discoveries: Susie Barstow, Julie Hart Beers, Fidelia Bridges, Sarah Cole, Charlotte Buell Coman, and Laura Woodward. These artists are included in a current show at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site: Woman Reframe American Landscape: Susie Barstow & Her Circle / Contemporary Practices. This is all a part of what many contemporary artists are grappling with: finding and supporting underrepresented artists, gender inequity, systemic racism, climate change, the pandemic. These are issues that have all come to the fore within the last few years, challenging all of us to look deeper.
EJ: Do your recent paintings Fire, Dry Field, and Smoke seek to express tragedy in specific rather than general terms? Do you feel that making art about climate change affects our thinking or actions? If not, would you say that, at the very least, contemporary landscape painting automatically elicits thoughts of climate change?
DM: I hope it is not just chronicling "current events." I know it is always tricky to attempt to use current issues. Some paintings might be a direct response, but my goal is to turn them into an image of our continued struggle to deal with undeniable climate challenges.
DM: As a landscape painter, I see the changes firsthand, but my paintings are more a metaphor for our current condition. I’ve always been interested in cycles; for instance, the woodpile paintings represent the cycle of decay, loss, and new growth, and make a metaphor for contemporary artists growing from the artists of the past. In Fire, a direct image of fire engulfing the landscape, the circle of smoke surrounding the center emphasizes cycles, and is full of movement and drama.
EJ: Smoke is the only painting with figures. The nebulous grey wall covering unseen depths expresses how lost we are both physically and politically regarding climate change. In the video Painting Arcadia, you talk about white party tents expressing loneliness or exclusion, mentioning that one thinks "something might happen, something did happen, something is going to happen." In your current work, do you consider smoke a parallel to empty tents or less articulated zones? For example, is there mystery in the blurred grass in Lupins With Grasses?
DM: In Smoke I did not show any specific event, so it could be one of many. We had a lot of smoke from the Canadian wildfires this summer. I have been interested in groups of people, a cabal that works out of sight from most of us: so /much of what we encounter––what we all have to deal with––is the effect of decisions that were already made by some unseen group.
DM: I worked on many of these images of the groups of people both in large drawings and some paintings, and I just never showed them. When I was putting this show together, I thought this painting really worked to tell the story that directly brings the human element into the show.
The tent paintings present an event that was to happen or did happen. We all want to be invited and to belong to something that is larger than ourselves. The tent paintings came from a location near Brooklin, Maine, where they host parties and weddings, and you get the most wonderful views. I focused my attention on before or after the event without showing what it was, so the viewer could draw their own conclusions. The tent ends up being a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of things and belonging.
EJ: Prior work depicts empty buildings, sky, sunsets, and seasons. Your current work seems to focus on single trees and weedy swards. Is there a reason that you narrowed your focus on nature to what is near and literally grounded? Does painting weedy patches connect to climate change? Do the paintings grapple with feelings about what we value or ignore, and what is vulnerable or neglected?
DM: “Grapple with feelings about what we value or ignore, and what are vulnerable or neglected”––well said. To me, a field is always shifting, evolving, changing. It is a complex ecosystem. I try to make sense of it, search for patterns to bring out objects, frame them with space that surrounds them. It becomes a meditative state that is romantic at its core. I am searching for the relationship between humans and their always-changing environment. These fields, weeds, plants build anew each year when spring arrives, flourishing for a season. Will the arts continue to flourish? Will they get the needed support? Can the arts continue to inspire, speak for our times, thrill, and provoke the viewer?
EJ: A farmer considers milkweed, Queen Anne's lace, and goldenrod interlopers. In Maine, lupin is considered an invasive species. Do you paint weeds because that is what you find on your rambles? Are they perhaps symbols of adaptation and resilience?
DM: Yes, they are found in this field in Maine near our summer rental where I have painted for the past twenty years. I walk out the door and encounter the vast expanse with all the teeming life of these plants but also the twisted apple trees, the views of the ocean, birds, deer, wild turkeys, and a multitude of other creatures.
"Adaption and resilience" is just the thing: Everything is continuously trying to adapt to this world that is changing. Plants and weeds are more resilient; in the end, they find places to survive and flourish. When I am focusing on them, I notice how intertwined they are: it’s really chaos.
EJ: A standout work is Edge Of The Field, a pleasing horizonal composition of Queen Ann's lace. I'm reminded of Dürer's attention to detail balanced with his knack for simplifying in just the right places. You mentioned in the video A Feeling for Nature that you often finish work in the studio. Could you share all the steps for this painting? Did you use photos, drawings, or watercolor studies? Do you make a lot of starts in the summer and finish work in the winter in the studio?
DM: Thank you for that comparison. By the way, I’ve just included Dürer’s Piece of Turf in a presentation I put together for my Landscape class. The other great influence is Fidelia Bridges.
DM: She is an American Pre-Raphaelite, who studied with William Trost Richards at PAFA. She took to heart John Ruskin’s quote: “If you can draw a leaf, you can draw the world.” I spend a great deal of time outside painting, drawing, and making watercolors. These are observations, chronicling, discovering. I use some of these as studies for the studio work, but not always.
DM: When I am outside, I am part of nature, feeling the hot sun and the wind, hearing the wind blow the weeds and trees, getting bitten by mosquitoes. I love the quote from George Inness: “You must suggest to me reality––you can never show me reality.” With my larger studio paintings, I use source material such as those on location: paintings, drawings, watercolors, photos, and my imagination. I feel the complexities of the larger oil paintings need to be away from the subject. This distills the image, develops the idea, and creates its own world. The Hudson River painters and the Tonalists all worked on paintings in the studio. Some contemporary artists that are spurred on by painters like Rackstraw Downes and Antonio López García have become rather messianic about painting only outside. I am inspired by these artists too, but I like what happens in the studio and not being so tied to the observational moment.
EJ: Edge Of The Field and They Drove By share an aloofness, a feeling of indifference coming from nature to viewers that I really admire. Are you thinking about the wall between humans and nature in these paintings? Or is this a result of pure focus?
DM: I think it’s largely focus. Also, that these are both close-up to the viewer. There is no ambiguity about where to look or what inhabits the painting. In both these paintings, I imply something that is beyond the given view. They Drove By alludes to the road where a Maine neighbor passes by at this time of day, and this disturbs the harmony and creates a possible story: where are they going? In Edge Of The Field I don’t show you the field, I reference it: I have a very sharp corner of the painting with some of the field showing, which creates a diagonal that shifts the painting away from its very horizontal and balanced composition. Tension is created by what is going on behind or beside the scene. My paintings take the spectator on a visual journey to the edge of the field. The work is asking where nature and civilization begins and ends.
EJ: Far Field almost creates a story of an individual plant safely tucked away near sheltering shade. Does the painting express feelings of safety or anonymity at a remove to you?
DM: There is a shelter, and this plant is tucked away in the corner of the field. The deep space behind gives you this close/far scenario.
EJ: I found myself returning to Lupins With Grasses because it seems to create mystery in the same way Smoke does. Who knows what's under the grass? Do you view the potent image of a meadow in Lupins With Grasses as like your burning woodpile paintings?
DM: I love using this strong vertical format. It really focuses the viewer, like with the painting of the lupins and grasses. I wanted to create a dramatic scene with those long flowing grasses contrasted by the vertical lupins. We do wonder what is going on under the grass. This is the pulse of the field and the last point before the beach and ocean. It dramatically changes right at this point; in many ways it mimics the flow and currents of the ocean. The ocean too has a whole world that is out of sight to us, just a glimpse of sea life emerges from time to time, or something will wash up on the shore. We understand so little of what is all around us. It thrills us. We seek it out. It needs to be protected.
–– Elizabeth Johnson
edited by Matthew Crain
October 12 - November 11, 2023
Douglas Martenson is a Professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught Drawing at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been exhibiting in Philadelphia with Gross McCleaf Gallery for over two decades and has shown his work regionally and nationally throughout the United States.
Martenson’s annual visits to Maine, travels to upstate New York, and finding remote sections on the outskirts of Philadelphia and Fairmount Park, serve as a source for his chosen subject matter. But - more importantly - these interludes allow time for reflection. Martenson provides not only a representation of the natural world but also an interpretation of the emotions felt, but infrequently articulated.