Silent settings of serenity.
Historical narratives are captured in a state of surrealist transformations in the work of London-based painter Natalia Gonzalez Martin. Rooted in art historical references and poetry, Martin seeks to illustrate these various textual accounts through the medium of paint and visual storytelling. Having studied Fine Art at City and Guilds of London Art School (an institution celebrated for its craftsmanship), and growing up alongside creative family members in a bucolic setting in Northern Madrid, has resulted in Martin’s distinctive use of paint and hands-on approach to the medium. Within her paintings, depth becomes hypothetical and limitless, where paint application and a selective colour palette produce the superficial environments within which her figures sit, notably flat and void of shadows. Informed by her previous exploration of sculpture, an interest in materiality can be seen in her use of wood panels as opposed to canvas. Not only does the stiff, rigid qualities of this medium appeal to Martin, but the historical lineage also imbued within it is an additional emphasis on the classicism within her work. With a voyeuristic set-up, female figures are depicted frozen in a moment of change, where the absence of motion provides a contemplative setting for observation. In conjunction with these larger paintings, small-scale works presenting various organic matter are often situated in tandem with her figures, acting as theatrical props in defining her characters’ roles, whilst being simultaneously available for their own interpretation. Providing a modern stage for historical dialogue to come to life, Martin creates a peaceful habitat, freed of time and caught in metamorphosis.
What effect did growing up in a small village in Northern Madrid have on your journey into the arts? Considering the art historical heritage of the city, are there any specific painters that continue to influence your practice?
Despite the isolation that comes from living in a remote place, my family has always placed a strong emphasis on awakening our cultural interests. However, I believe the strongest influence was the need for the resourcefulness that comes hand in hand with living in rural places. Everyone knows how to make a hemp basket, sew and mend your own clothes, woodcarving cutlery or any other useful utensil in order to make life easier. I have been surrounded by highly creative, innovative, and hands-on people.
You relocated from Spain to England to study Fine Art at City & Guilds London Art School, an institution renowned for its craftsmanship. What were your hopes upon completing your undergraduate degree?
Because of my background, I have always considered skill and craftsmanship a very important quality to undertake any creative endeavour, and City & Guilds was the only university that placed a strong emphasis on that without it becoming solely academia. My hopes were those of everyone else’s; ‘Mr. Saatchi himself is going to appear in my studio and realise what a good artist I am!’. This deluded way of thinking was actually really useful while pursuing my degree as it forced me to be daring and motivated me to give it my best. However, as soon as I graduated my dreams and hopes became much more realistic and I realised there is no knight in shining armour who comes and offers you a solo exhibition in NY, it’s just you.
After graduating you initiated Subsidiary Projects, a nomadic gallery delivering an exciting programme of exhibitions in unconventional spaces. Has this experience of organising and working within the gallery sector impacted the way you approach making your own work?
Subsidiary Projects has been one of the most fun things I have done. It was the child of desperation and boredom, but the result was so beautiful. It allowed me to meet many different artists, curators, as well as other organisations doing similar things – which made me realise how big yet small the London art scene is. During that time I wasn’t making my own work and Subsidiary Projects was my link to the art world. It was through my encounters with all the different artists and their will to pursue their practice that I started to slowly grow inspired again.
In talking about your sculptural practice, you mentioned it was a way of departing from a more literal aesthetic. Could you elaborate on this?
I am not a sculptor, but I love making objects out of plasticine, clay, plaster… It’s not nearly as natural as painting but I find immense enjoyment in it. During the last year of my painting degree, I decided to do sculpture. Maybe because I am not very good at it or because I am quite literal with painting, sculpture was my way into abstraction or at least deformation of the subject. The subject matter was still the same: a rethinking of the past, a transcription, but the result was completely different (although they had a very fleshy painterly quality to them)
Your shift to painting was marked by a small portrait of a crying figure, produced while on residency at AucArt in June 2019. Does water still play a significant role in your practice to this day? Does it hold sentimental value to you?
A friend of mine took notice of that painting, which I saw as an indulgent exercise, and not very serious. When painting it I realised I was putting myself into so many rules of what I could or could not do, so I decided to start enjoying it. Water is something I enjoy painting because you have to NOT paint in order for it to be effective. It’s a less is more type of approach. Sentimentality is very effective, it can be a million things, and depending on its placement it can mean one thing or another – if a drop is in the inner thigh it is very different to it being under the eye.
Within areas of your paintings, subtle mineral streaks can be seen, which result from working on wood panels as an alternative to canvas. How do you find the qualities of working with such a rigid material beneficial to the work?
I never let the streaks dictate the composition but I do enjoy it when their ghosts appear through the paint, as it reminds you that there are layers to this image, and it’s not just what’s on top.
The reinvention of the panel has played a significant role throughout history; from Ancient Greek tablet paintings in the 6th century BC, to alter-pieces in Italy during the 14th century. How does the historical lineage of this medium support your work’s underlying narrative?
I like its historic aspect and the object-of-veneration quality they hold. I love that you cannot bend, roll or alter them, they are there and there is no form of making them more malleable or manageable.
When visiting your studio, I was able to witness paintings in various stages of development. From initial priming with rabbit skin glue to finishing touches of hair in more completed areas. Could you explain a little more about the process of formulating this work and more specifically the way you use colour, particularly three pastel tones, to create perspective?
After priming the wood with rabbit skin glue (I don’t like nor trust anything synthetic on my panels), I am able to roughly sketch out a figure or object(s) with washes of diluted paint. This is the most instinctive part of my practice and the one time where I can make mistakes and wash them out. Afterwards, I build up the different layers, which is a more paused and thoughtful process as I don’t like building thick layers and whatever is placed on the board stays. This layering of elements and soft washes creates that sense of perspective.
In relation to colour and paint application, you mentioned using your fingers to blend the paint on areas of the face. Much like applying makeup, this approach is very tactile and intimate. How do you see this connecting with ideals of femininity? On a wider scope, could this be a subtle comment on the beauty standards of our time?
I don’t think we have particularly different beauty standards as we have always had, make up has always been there and our fingers are as good a tool as the most expensive brush to apply it. The use of my fingers is quite automatic, I have better control of my hands than any tool I could use. The reason behind using my fingers is purely practical.
The figures in your work are consistently curvaceous females. Their position is reminiscent of the Renaissance nudes, given that their gaze is almost always directed inwards or into the distance. What does offering such a voyeuristic space for these characters mean to you as the artist? When you create them, do you place yourself within them or are you also a spectator?
My body is the body I am more familiar with, and my anatomical references are going to be quite closely related to my own. I use that body as a canvas to project the stories on, to put these characters in different situations, and when I do that it’s no longer me, and I become the spectator. Both and none at the same time.
In addition to figurative paintings, smaller works depicting fruits, petals and hands are a large part of your practice. Often situated alongside the figures in a story book manner, do you see these as supporting the larger pieces, or are they meaningful in isolation?
Objects are key to defining those characters. Jesus without the cross is just a normal man who spoke a bit louder. Could you imagine Adam and Eve without the apple? or David without the stone? The character needs the object to create its definition. If the symbolism of the object is strong enough, you might place them on their own and let them speak for themselves.
Scale and perspective are a thematic focus of your work, with life-size figures cropped, glitched and framed within the restricted sizes of the panel. This could be seen as a modern technique, birthed from cameras and the use of digital technology. Is it important to incorporate such a contemporary approach with such a historically rooted subject matter?
It’s not so much that it is important but unavoidable. We can’t escape or erase the influences we are subject to, and if they pour over the work naturally then that’s great! I don’t have the knowledge or skills or intention to fool people into thinking it’s an object from the past, and the fact that it’s made now should be evident, one would hope.
Pastel colours and the absence of layers are a way of establishing flatness within your picture planes, which gives the work a surrealist aesthetic. However, it can also be linked to our contemporary way of viewing and processing art through flat surfaces – screens. Are any digital programs used in the making process? How do you consider the digital within your work?
I use images, I use Google a lot for small things, like Googling images of fruits or plants but I transcribe them into the board quite freely so it’s not a direct link to the digital file. Many times I use pictures from my phone but I tend to print those to avoid increasing my screen time.
The areas of research for your work are broad, covering both visual and text-based references. Does your experience with text feel more conducive to producing distinctive compositions?
Text is always a great way into a painting. I like illustrating stories, so most of my characters would be characters from history, books or folkloric culture. I like imagining what the adjectives they are being described with would look like visually.
Text is also utilised through your consistent dialogue with writers. What motivated you to recently work with writer and artist Cora Sehgal Cuthbert?
For Las Soledades, my solo exhibition at Steve Turner Gallery in LA, I asked writer and artist Cora Sehgal Cuthbert to write about the subject of the exhibition, the ‘Desert Mothers’. We had a series of conversations and a long back and forth creating a symbiosis between the paintings and the text. I am very interested in this collaboration between literature and painting and it’s something I want to explore more.
In your new body of work you are reimagining ‘Metamorphosis’ (8 AD) by Ovid. Are the key elements, characters, and narratives in your paintings depicted at an intangible, tense moment before things change?
This series will be presented in my upcoming solo exhibition “A Change (Will Do You Good)” at Hannah Barry Gallery in May 2022. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a very hard subject to depict as it has been recreated incessantly through the centuries, but I totally understand why, it’s fascinating. I am trying to not portray my Dianas, Danaes Arachnes and other characters as I have seen them, but try to shed a new light on them, from their perspective moments before the changes occur.
There is so much to it, it’s so visual, erotic and brutal. It’s a book about everything, so how is it not going to be used as a subject matter for art? A celebration of change; one of the scariest things that can happen to us but also the one thing we can be sure of. A terrifying delight.
Your practice has already seen quite significant changes and perhaps metamorphosis could be a metaphor for your artistic development. With this in mind, how do you see your artwork changing in the near future?
I have a list of other series I want to develop. Some are characters that exist in the same universe as my past ones but I am eager to develop some of the ways in which I will present them.
In preparation for your solo show “A Change (Will Do You Good)” with Hannah Barry Gallery in May, are you considering the gallery space as a site where these timeless new works can be displayed chronologically? How will the composition and colour of the works address the theme of transformation and time?
In the exhibition, you will travel through the different times of the day in order to highlight the ever-moving quality of the story (and of the world), the sky above does its own thing while characters are placed on the ground carrying out their own fates.
Words by Brooke Wilson