The Beauty of Bare
There’s a “free the nipple” campaign that’s been happening for at least five years now, inspired by a film of the same name. Some have questioned the importance of this campaign, bemoaning what they conceive to be irrelevant, in comparison to more “serious” causes. In a way, they’re right, but not for the reasons they believe. The issue should be dealt with immediately, in favor of women who are fighting for the decriminalization of their breasts. Men aren’t penalized for it, neither should women be. But they are, and hence the movement.
We here in America are like juvenile boys, when it comes to partial or full nudity, especially as regards women. Parents and teachers alike, rush to cover the eyes of their children, in museums and art galleries, in a futile attempt to “protect” their “virgin” minds. However, nudity is our natural state, the manner in which we are brought into this world. When the day is done, we yearn to be rid of our confining habiliments. We can no more quell that desire, than we could our appetite for nourishment.
Susannah Martin paints beautiful, naked people. They aren’t beautiful because of any “superior” physical attributes, their beauty is in their freedom, and the joy of it. If ever there was an occasion to use the term “frolic”, it is in Susannah’s paintings. There is a genuine innocence in her brush, that comes through in the canvas. This is humanity without the accoutrements and concerns of modern society. Call it heaven or paradise, or whatever you will. It is most certainly calling you.
I've always imagined clothing to be (aside from protection from the elements) an expression of our character, our souls, if you will. Your personal philosophy seems to indicate the obverse, that you believe clothing to be a barrier to who we truly are.
I am not intentionally making a statement against clothing or fashion. Clothing or fashion is indeed an expression of our individual characters and personalities within a specific cultural framework. I suppose I am trying to explore what is the essentially human experience beyond who we are as personalities or members of a specific culture. Generally all the belongings which we collect including clothing, help us to feel that we are more than what we are, namely one human being. Our belongings give us a sense of security, not only in the sense of protection but in the sense of belonging to a culture, our status within that culture and the illusion of uniqueness. So I am exploring what we are beyond all of these add-ons so to speak. I am looking for the elements of being where we are connected with one another and with all nature, and therefore I set aside the constructions of identity which often give us the sense of separateness.
Would it be presumptuous of me to say that you're a naturist?
I do not consider myself a naturist, although I do sympathize strongly with that life philosophy. I am an artist, painting the nude within a long tradition of artists who have painted the nude. It is important to see my work in the context of that tradition. I am reacting mostly to that tradition and trying to add a contemporary interpretation. Remember that the oldest known work of art is over 40,000 years old and represents a nude woman; the Venus of Willendorf. Humans looking at and representing other humans in some form was going on long before anyone thought of fashion or even of art as a product or a vocation. It is simply something that humans do, a way of understanding and communicating with one another.
In what way do you think Abrahamic religions have influenced our modesty, and do you feel that they have adversely affected society?
Certainly the ancient Greeks for example appeared to have a more liberal or open appreciation of the human form in art, but I think we are fooling ourselves if we think their society was without repression. The open appreciation of the flesh applied primarily to men. Women were scrutinized by a different standard even before the Judeo-Christian religions took precedence. But no doubt, the religions of the last 2000 years have promoted body shame as a means of controlling the population, particularly with women.
One of the issues I have always had with much of religion and spirituality, is the almost total negation of the flesh, in favor of the spiritual, or divine. Our bodies are dismissed as something to shun, rather than embrace.
Yes. Always a connection made between physicality and sin. Well that was the original sin right? Eve eating the fruit of knowledge and thus condemning us to an eternity of body shame. I think that primarily the church had the responsibility to impose ethical restraints on society. Remember that the majority of the people had no access to education outside of the church. Certainly ethics play an important role in a healthy society and as far as sexual behavior is concerned, without ethics we are doomed to chaos. The church used the fear of God and body shame to enforce ethical behavior in a society which lacked higher education. It is no wonder that an advanced society with access to higher education is ruled more by self- imposed ethics and a more liberal body politics emerges.
The animals you portray in many of your paintings, was there any reason why these animals in particular were chosen? Is it a random decision, or is there something more to their placement?
There really isn't anything in my paintings that is random or put there without deliberation. The dogs have become very important. I think there is a very good reason why they are considered man's best friend. Dogs and humans have much in common in spirit with one another. In the paintings, for me, the dogs represent the human spirit of play and joy of life released from societal pressures. Man set free so to speak. Whereas the monkeys represent for me the species with which we are intellectually most closely related. In many ways I think that monkeys have almost as much of our intellect but none of sickness. Our massive brains have taken us further, but are also causing us endless trouble.
There are strange objects as well; jello, a spoon, toys, some kind of fluid, etc. What part do these things play in your work?
At first my nudes in landscape were very pure. There was no indication of time. I began to bring in contemporary objects of consumption to bring the paintings clearly into the now. I also wanted to emphasize the discrepancy between the world which nature has provided us with, and the world which we have created for ourselves. We often choose bright and shiny over organic, plastic over biological, artifice over nature and I'm exploring on some level why that is. We covet and surround ourselves with inanimate and artificial distractions, and turn increasingly away from our fellow beings and I wonder what´s behind that. I am juxtaposing these two worlds in a deliberately stark way in order to provoke my viewer to think about it with me.
When you began painting, had you planned on doing nudes? Have you done anything else, say portraits or perhaps landscapes?
I have a long, long history with painting. To begin with, both of my parents were painters so painting was a household activity which goes back to my earliest years. At one point I wanted to study medicine but I had to admit that there was no way that I could stop painting. I went to art school at NYU and showed a bit after that but quickly had to find a practical way to make a living as I did not have the financial support to dive into art making full time. So I began working for a set painting company and that is where I learned to paint backdrops for film and photography. I did that independently for many years as well as mural painting. I have always painted all kinds of subjects but landscape and the figure were always my favorites. When my daughter was born in 2000, I decided that I needed to make a living with painting that did not take me so far away from home. I began painting portraits and discovered how much I had missed painting people. When you are really in to painting people you want to paint the nude, it´s that simple. I realized pretty quickly that in order to paint what I wanted to paint, I had to walk out on that tightrope and risk the life of a fine artist. It is a very tough way to go, but I have never looked back.
You did a show recently in Culver City, Los Angeles. What can you tell me about that event?
Yes, the show is called the Poets/Artists Group show, and it opened 2 December at Arcadia Contemporary. The show is curated by Didi Menendez and John Seed and includes some of the best figurative painters working right now. I am very proud to have been invited to participate in it with my brand new piece “Helium” which I created for this show. I have been involved in multiple shows or publications with Didi Menendez and the Poets/Artist Group in the USA which she has formed and works incredibly hard to promote. I came in contact with John Seed while he was an art critic for the Huffington Post. He has written about my work a few times.
The group revolves around contemporary figurative painters who are all too often shut out of the mainstream art world. Didi and John have made it their ambition to see that that dynamic changes. I love what they are doing, it's so important. I believe that the general public has a great interest in figurative painting but in many ways, they are being prevented from getting exposure to it.
You may visit Susannah Martin's delightful website here, and follow her updates at Instagram, and Twitter.