Conversation with Martha Jones: Recent Work and the Deeper Catalogue
February 9, 2015
I want to talk with you about your exhibit up now at the Linda Matney Gallery, Abstract Portraits 2014, but I’d also like to make this interview more inclusive by asking you to talk about work that preceded both your present show as well as the one-artist exhibit you had here at the Matney Gallery in 2013-14. Can we start by discussing your older artwork and make our way forward?
Lately I have been interested in looking more deeply into your catalogue, and I am especially interested in this painting of a hand surrounded by these inverted half-circles over what look like the meander patterns you were using then but that also look a lot like eyes. I’m intrigued by the amount of energy in the painting and the way you’ve suggested an anthropomorphic awareness at the same time that these symbols are so abstract. Can you say something about this painting and anything else you’d like to share about how your work was developing at the time?
Anatolia Trip, oil on canvas, 24” x 32”, 2007, private collection
This painting is in a private collection in Greece; I painted it in 2007 during the two-year period from 2006 to 2008 when I was living in Athens, Greece and maintaining a painting studio there. Looking at the painting again, I’m really struck by what it shows about fundamental changes my work was going through during these two years. Two major changes made an enormous difference to what I do: I started painting abstractly and my color palette lightened considerably. This period was enormously important for the development of my work: my work really took off in 2009 after I returned to Williamsburg, and actually most of the work I’ve done since then has been involved with working out the implications of the decisions I made in Athens.
While I was in Athens I was searching for examples of abstraction in ancient art as well as elsewhere that would give me something to work with in my own abstract projects; I found that the meander was one of the most fruitful designs for this purpose. Here is a meander pattern in the circular border of this red-figure 5th-c. Athenian vase painting.
Usually the patterns appear in a continuous frieze, but I opted to break them down into single examples or into pairs of meanders as in the hand painting. I found I could turn the meanders and make them look as if they were headed or moving in different directions. Much of the sense of movement here comes from the fact that the patterns are turned toward the left along the top of the canvas but half way down the left side and along the bottom they turn back toward the right before turning back to the left on the right side. The single meander on the right side of the composition has lines that appear to show motion coming from its bottom. The overall impression is of a movement of these patterns around the hand at the center of the composition.
The painting is very transitional: there’s a semi-anthropomorphic quality to these pairs of meanders under the dome-shaped cover that you’ve picked up on. The palette still shows some of the darker palette of my work before this time. I was trying out several colors for lines and really became most interested around this time in using a red line and pink volumes; in this painting you can see me experimenting with lines in several colors.
Can you say any more about the changes to your color scheme and pick out any other paintings from this period that show the developments you’ve described?
The lighter and pinker color schemes that I began to use while in Athens were influenced by the bright Mediterranean light and show affinities with the late work of Philip Guston. Here are a couple of other examples of work from this period in Greece that demonstrate these changes. In this painting I was working with the forms of letters as the basis for an abstract composition.
My Mother, oil on canvas, 24” x 32”, 2007
You can see the capital letter A in black and orange turned upside down; the shape to its left is based on a Rho in Greek or a P in English—it’s also turned upside down. Actually I’d originally worked on this painting in the opposite orientation and then turned it upside down. I was looking for an abstracted result and felt that the letters were a bit too readable for the more mysterious effect I was searching for. Next to the A was what started life as a capital M, but the central half line has been partially painted over. There’s still a sort of half-anthropomorphic look here. The two bucket-like shapes in the top left and top center are based on the basic arch and look again a lot like eyes—eyes that to me look like they’re closed and asleep; the semi-circles over them can be interpreted as eyebrows—if one likes.
This next painting is a lot more open to the background than the two we’ve just discussed. The painting is really an exercise in determining which lines and forms will take priority over others. This process of working out what goes into the foreground and what into the background is always important in my work and especially in my newest work from the 2014 show. Also, in this painting you can see other examples of motifs from ancient art: there’s the outline of a palmette turned upside down in the lower left; the large gray mass is based on a Cycladic figurine, but plumper and more massive. The meander looks here like the letter S or the numeral 5.
Meanders and Palmette, oil on canvas, 28” x 38”, 2008, ASCSA collection
Although I didn’t actually realize it at the time, the next painting that was one of the last I did in Athens really brought together a lot of the characteristics that would be present in the period after I returned to the US. There’s the pink and red color scheme, the arch shape and some meanders as well as the rounded edges to the overall composition that became really important to me after this.
Arches, Meanders, Flower, oil on canvas, 28” x 39”, 2008
Can you say something generally about how your work has developed over time especially after the period represented by the paintings we’ve just been discussing? I know you showed some of the work from this period in a fellowship exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2011 and later at the Andrews Gallery at William and Mary in 2014. Can you talk about pieces from these shows?
The VMFA Fellowship show was made up of work up to 2011 including some done in Greece and was the first time I’d shown most of the work that grew out of the extended stay in Athens. The exhibit was called “Big, Pink Paintings” and stressed monumental-sized paintings (2 m. x 2.8 m.): the show included four paintings this size.
The Kiss, oil on canvas, 78” x 94”, 2009
The Andrews show also focused on work done between 2007 and 2012. So taken together the work in the two exhibits gives a good idea of how my work developed during the period in Greece and for a few years after the paintings we were just discussing. (Some of the 2009 monumental-sized paintings and more monumental work from 2013 were shown in Martha’s 2013-14 show at the Matney Gallery and are illustrated elsewhere on the gallery web site. Click here to see that blog post.)
In a general sense, I’d say that I’ve worked with much more complete abstraction since the Athens period. Also in Greece I conceived the ambition to work on a monumental scale, started working in this direction there, and successfully did so in the period after I returned to the US. The paintings in the two exhibits you’ve asked about show how important the influence of Philip Guston’s late work was for my decisions about color and style even though my work is more purely abstract than what he was doing in his late period. This next painting is a good example of how the meander and arch motifs can be used to suggest a broad range of meanings rather than merely as design motifs. The horizontal repetition of arches and meander symbols here are in my opinion reminiscent of written symbols arranged in lines on a horizontal grid.
White Meanders, oil on canvas, 31” x 39”, 2009, private collection
At the Andrews show I included this next painting, the largest painting I’ve ever done, twice as wide and the same height as my other largest paintings. In it I was quite interested in working out different patterns of symmetry and asymmetry that govern the repetition of similar motifs across the large area.
Forms of Symmetry, oil on canvas, 78” x 188”, 2010
Your use of poetry and text as images has intrigued me: many paintings almost seem to be exposing hidden meanings--a sort of recitation of the words via images. The Andrews show was really focused on language and poetry as a theme in your work. Can you single out other pieces from your Andrews exhibit that deal with this theme?
Yes. The paintings and drawings in the Andrews show were all chosen because they related directly or indirectly to the subject of language and its visual representations. Some works in the exhibit included entire poems, parts of poems, some poems by others, as well as poems I’d written myself previously, and poems I wrote at the same time I worked on the drawing or painting. Other works contained one or two words; still other work in the show contained individual letters, or syllables, or paintings in which the entire composition was influenced by a letter shape.
Map Paint, oil on canvas, 24” x 24”, 2010
I like to think, also, that symbols like the meander pattern have a fundamental relationship to the symbols of writing systems; I’m not in the business of substantiating the historical truth of this notion, but I imagine that such symbols were either antecedents for early writing or developed alongside the symbols for written speech. Here are a couple of examples of smaller works that use the meander as their main theme.
Reversed Yellow, oil on canvas, 11” x 14”, 2011
Blue-Green Meanders, oil on canvas, 16” x 20”, 2010
Also, a lot of my own poetry is on Mediterranean themes or shows the influence of ancient poetic traditions; many of them I wrote in Greece or Sicily, many of them outdoors at ancient archaeological sites, at beaches or walking in the mountains. Here’s a good example of what I call a poem-painting; the poem here is a shortened version of a poem I wrote in Greece. My goal with these poem-paintings is to simplify the visual aspects of the work so that they don’t compete with the words. Also in most of these I usually simplified what was originally a longer poem so that the text would not overpower the visual composition. I tried to come up with a set of roughly rectangular visual spaces that can be arranged to contain the rhythmical units of the language. My goal was to create an interesting interplay between verbal and visual rhythms.
The Goat is Near Here, oil on canvas, 36” x 36”, 2011
I was able to focus on the role of language as a theme in my work in the Andrews show, but it’s a theme I’ve been interested in since at least 1999-2000; several of the representational paintings I did at this time include letter forms, syllables, and even long quotations from the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek chosen because of their thematic connection to the African traditional objects depicted in the work. In its various forms, metaphors of language, poetry and writing continue to be important for my work. Here’s a painting from 2000 that’s in a private collection; it wasn’t in the Andrews show but is a good example of the use of language in work I did quite a while ago now.
Mother and Child, oil on canvas, 30” x 30”, 2000, private collection
As for what you said about the paintings being involved in some mysterious process, exposing secret meaning. That is great. Thank you so much for saying so. I feel myself that there are always a lot more meanings to these works than I can necessarily explain in conversations like this. That’s a good thing.
Can we step back one more time? Can I ask you for a little more information about your earliest African-inspired work and the other figurative work based on Greek art that you were doing at the same time? Besides the language-theme connection, how do these images relate to your later work? I’m also curious about how your audience reacted to the transition from the figurative to the abstract.
You’re taking me back to 1999-2000. My professional background before beginning to paint full-time was as a university instructor of Latin, Greek and Classical Studies. I gave up teaching and began painting full-time in 2005 and have been happy with the decision to return to what I think is actually my strongest and most long-standing talent. As a classicist my interests lay primarily in Greek and Latin literature; the entire field has been a fundamental influence on my work. My newest work is not so obviously connected to these interests but their influence is there nevertheless. Most of the paintings from this period depict African subjects. The paintings could be described as a sort of expressionist representational form.
Monkey, oil on canvas, 24” x 30”, 2000
I was interested in working toward abstraction; in hindsight I can see that this is where the process started but at the time I didn’t know how far I’d take it. In the paintings I was interested in flattening out the images from my drawings and incorporating elements of their design into the overall composition of the painting to a point that approached abstraction although the object depicted remained recognizable. Not all of these pictures are based on African imagery; this painting shows 2 small Greek vases decorated with abstract designs.
Corinthian Aryballoi, oil on canvas, 24” x 30”, 2000
The obvious answer to how my audiences have taken the shift to abstraction has had to do with whether individuals liked or appreciated abstraction already. By now I’ve been doing it long enough that I find I’ve convinced a lot of people of the value of paintings that take the painting itself as its primary subject rather than primarily attempting to represent an image. Also I’ve tried to make clear that these paintings are “about” a lot of things in addition to composition, application of paint, color, form, line and other purely visual concerns.
Can you elaborate on how your work has been received by your audience in Europe as opposed to in the US? Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share about your experiences with patrons either elsewhere or in the US? Do you have an ongoing relationship with the organizations that have collected your work.
Most of the patrons who have bought my work have been either other artists or academics in other fields. Up to this point this has been true both in Europe as well as in the US. The two years I had a studio in Athens was just long enough to develop enough work to have a show sponsored by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and to generate interest. I have several works in a private collection in Greece as well as a painting in the collection of the American School. I have been associated with the American School for a long time beginning in the early 1990’s when I was a graduate student studying archaeology and classical studies there.
A Discussion of Martha’s Most Recent Work
February 12, 2015
Abstract Portraits: 2014 Paintings
Linda Matney Gallery, Entry Gallery
December 5, 2014 – February 15, 2015
I wanted to ask you some questions about your new work from the Fall of 2014 that’s presently on exhibit here at the Linda Matney Gallery. Can you say something about what you meant to accomplish with this series of paintings and how they relate to previous work?
I decided to call the show “Abstract Portraits”; this title best represents my key concerns in the work—use of a vertical portrait format and developing a type of abstract painting that upsets the expectation that portraits are only representational in a traditional sense.
The work grew directly out of the series of paintings I did in 2013 and exhibited here at the Linda Matney Gallery. I called that series the “Intersticism Project” because I was concerned with how to treat the spaces between forms and how to represent the areas where forms and lines meet and overlap. (There’s a lot of information about this 2013-14 show on a previous Matney Galley blog. Click here.) The paintings in this earlier series were abstract with some hints of figuration. For the work in the earlier Matney show I developed a sort of grid in a spiral formation; on that rather regular spiral form I dispersed more free-formed shapes.
Lucky Cat #1, oil on canvas, 54” x 60”, 2013
The paintings in this series tended to be much larger than the most recent work and included two monumental-sized works. Here’s one example. Like many of my paintings this one and others in this series demonstrate my interest in making rounded compositions on the rectilinear format of the canvas. This interest in overall compositions that are circular and oval is also crucial to the new work although the effect of the new work is quite different.
Twin Cats, oil on canvas, 72” x 96”, 2013
The work I’m showing this year developed out of this form of abstraction but took it in a very different direction. I decided to concentrate on the spiral grid in its own right, and for the most part the paintings are studies in geometric form and color. The painting style is more precisely structured and less free-form than what I was doing last year. The paintings are much smaller than the Intersticism Project work, and that’s a factor in the more precise painting technique.
To speak of abstract portraits is really a sort of paradox, or an apparent contradiction to the idea that portraits are representational. I like that play on traditional notions, but really the idea of these paintings as portrait-like grew out of a decision to work in a vertical format and with oval and round canvases. For a long time I have been doing paintings on a horizontal canvas, and the primary visual reference of my largest paintings has been to landscape painting. So I had been thinking for a while that I would take it as a challenge to work with a vertical format and see what I would come up with. These paintings, then, are pretty experimental for me.
The oval and round canvases were also important to my thinking of these paintings as portrait-like. A couple of factors led to my decision to try them out. I’d spent quite a bit of time last year reading John Richardson’s biography of Picasso; I was struck by how often Picasso and Braque had used oval canvases in their earliest cubist still-lifes. This is really a very old-fashioned portrait format—think of all the oval portrait paintings and photographs from the 19th and early 20th century. I thought it would be interesting to do something modern with such an old-fashioned format.
Another influence on these oval and round paintings was the series of ceramic sculptures that I’ve been working on for the last two or three years. Like the paintings the emphasis is on multi-colored segmented strands of line. I am showing three of these in the Abstract Portraits show. The parts of these sculptures can rotate, but they are quite delicate. Although I regard these as interesting works in their own right, I also see them as a sort of prototype for larger work in other materials. I’d like to do more work with these types of moving sculptures in the future.
Ceramic Ovals,10.5”h. x 4.5”w. x 4”d., 2013
Can you say anything more about what you’re looking for in the new paintings? The way that the vertical strands of color and the horizontals of the spiral intersect brings the metaphor of weaving to mind.
Yes, I think these paintings really have several metaphorical references. As I was working I myself thought a lot about how the painting process was like the process of weaving. I thought about which of the vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines would make up the foreground and which would go into the background in the different paintings and how they would overlap. I made a pretty conscious decision at a certain point not to cross over the yellow strands when I used them for the horizontal lines that curved back to form the overall spiral shapes. I wanted to allow this most luminous and least definite of colors to really take on the quality of line and carry the major structures of the composition. As the series progressed I used other colors as well as yellow for the overall spiral but still tried to keep that spiral in the foreground.
I also was interested in how these paintings carry the metaphor of traditional female crafts: not only weaving, but also needlework. Because it was practically difficult to make the rounded canvases secure enough on the easel to work with, I tended to hold the canvas with my left hand and to paint it with my right much as one would hold an embroidery hoop with one hand while working with the other.
Many people who’ve seen these paintings have instantly thought of them as representing eggs. This interpretation is an obvious extension of the oval shape, and it’s interesting. Actually this was not my original intention or focus, but these paintings are abstract and therefore pretty open to interpretation and I am thinking about the egg analogy more and more.
I wonder if you have any thoughts on whether or how what you’re doing in some way relates to the act of representing facial features?
Yes, the question about the similarities and differences between these abstractions and traditional representational portraits is really something I was interested in myself. The differences are so obvious, but the similarities are, I think, subtle and intriguing. I have been thinking of how the set of horizontal lozenge shapes that make up the spiral composition can be taken to represent in some essential way the planes of a human face. To follow the thought, it’s the different decisions about color, the different number of loops in the spiral, the different painting techniques and other variables that define the sort of individuality that parallels the act of depicting an individual portrait subject.
Also, there’s something about the shaped canvases I just really think is interesting; I get this sense that these paintings border on the three-dimensional in a way that rectangles and squares can’t really do. I’ve been interested for a long time to come up with rounded compositions on rectilinear canvases, so using these oval and round canvases has been really fun. There’s a quality of object-ness to them that’s very sculptural.
What are you plans for your work in the future? Could you say something to the audience that has already discovered your work as well as to new patrons that would encapsulate where you have been as well as where you are going? What would you tell a new patron interested in collecting the works of Martha Jones?
I haven’t said anything about the sculptural assemblages that I’ve been making for the last few years. I would like to do a show in a large space filled with these converted television dioramas. I’ve showed examples of this work several times, but I haven’t yet shown them as I imagine them—in a rectangular space arranged in ranks of about five across and of about eight to ten rows deep. I would really be interested to see how this would look; I keep imagining Chinese warriors figures buried in the tomb of their king.
BAAA!!!!, sculptural assemblage, 20”h. x 19”w. x 20”d., 2013
I am continuing to experiment with the small oval and round paintings as in this present show. Some of these new paintings are a bit different: more impasto, some with over-painting in white cloud-like shapes, and that’s an interesting development.
I’ve started painting large again, and have just finished my first large painting (55” x 63”) since my fall 2014 work went up in this exhibit. I started this painting with the canvas turned vertically and got some interesting results, but I wasn’t completely satisfied so I tried turning it horizontally. This is when the painting really came alive, and I was able to finish it successfully. Although it’s not vertical in orientation, it really shows the benefits of the lessons I learned from the abstract portrait series of constructing a composition from strands of line. The application of paint is much more loose like what I was doing a year ago, but the sense of composition has benefited enormously from my work last fall. Sorry, I don’t have photographs yet of this new painting. The color scheme is very timely: it’s primarily pink and red again (with hints of yellow and orange left from early painting stages), and this time against a background of pale blue—looks like a Valentine to me. I have some ideas for following up this painting with related work on canvases of the same size; we’ll see whether this will develop into a new series.
As far as what I’d say to my audience for the work and to new patrons considering a purchase: I think one of the major things that holds the entire corpus together is my concern that my paintings have both a really strong over-all composition that will make a strong impression when the work is viewed from a distance and at the same time contain detailed paint work that is interesting to look at when examined up close. I think these are features that emerged in the figurative work and became even more important in the abstract work. I believe that I am continuing to produce good work and work that is complex enough to be interesting to look at over time. So, I believe this work would make a sound investment.