Luanne Martineau is a process-based conceptual artist who employs obsessive levels of handwork in her art. She transcends the fibre arts movement through her engagement with the felting process. In her work, abstracted figurative forms built from layers of felt can conjure moments of horror and beauty, and the flesh-like appearance of her materials can call to mind a slaughterhouse or the scene of an accident. The manner in which these works are installed, however, allows for readings beyond the grotesque.
Martineau’s colour sense has an historical familiarity that stems from the painters Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning, whom she reinterprets as shapers of modern American art history. Growing up in Saskatchewan, she was acutely aware of the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop—an annual series of seminars hosted by the University of Saskatchewan—where, in 1962, the critic Clement Greenberg and the painter Barnett Newman intersected with important Regina artists.
Born in Saskatoon, Martineau now lives and works in Victoria, British Columbia, where she teaches in the University of Victoria’s Visual Arts department. She was shortlisted for the 2009 Sobey Art Award, and a solo exhibition of her works was mounted at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2010.
Noah Becker: Deskilling, re-skilling, handwork and process-based conceptualism are terms that enter the discourse that surrounds your work. Ethical and moral issues usually factor into discussions of skill in the production of conceptually based work. When asked to explain your crafting of textiles, how do you justify handwork?
Luanne Martineau: I started working with textiles when I was an undergrad in the painting department of the Alberta College of Art and Design. I primarily studied painting, but I went to textiles early on as a way of talking about painting. My interest was in the subserviency of craft, the use-value of craft, the fact that craft has fought for legitimacy within the visual-arts realm. I’m interested in that discussion, not in whether craft is or isn’t a fine-art medium. But making an argument that craft must be inserted within the high-art/visual-art language is missing the point. There are no really successful models of modernist disinterest when it comes to craft. Craft is always about having either the time or the money to produce something that is materially realized. What I’ve been finding is that my work has been placed intermittently in shows with curatorial ideas about the unmonumental. In my understanding, the unmonumental is very much about the modernist program of deskilling, wherein the artist is not an artisan working with specialized materials or specialized dexterity. Rather, it’s the idea of a juxtaposition of materials. It’s a relational aesthetic operation of making.
NB: Drawings can function as preparatory organizational tools for making. Has your engagement with drawing been anything beyond preliminary work for sculptures?
LM: The drawings have changed. What they do differs depending on what they are. The more straight-ahead “drawing drawings” tend to visually reference material that I have either sculpted previously, or that I am about to use to produce a sculpture that has affects or signals of the things that appear in another drawing. But then there are other types of drawings that I call “drulptures,” which fall between drawing and sculpture where they are very much their own things. They can have elements in them that can be teased out in sculptural forms, but I definitely don’t see them as being in any way preliminary. Drawing has a history of being a preliminary medium, but with the drulptures, they’re unfinished, speculative forms.
NB: Unfinished forms hold multiple meanings. Although your work has been called baroque, it is the tradition of the grotesque that comes more readily to mind.
LM: I take ideas of social art history and I manifest them into bodily forms. When I do that, the bodies tend to break apart. They get flayed open, because I am talking about these insertions of different interests, different moments of battle, different ideologies. So the flayed-open aspect is a byproduct of the histories that I’m looking at and inserting into this kind of physical body. But it’s not my motive to make the grotesque or to employ violence or the grotesque as an aesthetic gesture unto itself.
NB: Your forms are very painterly. They show the influence of a variety of sources, including Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston. How have these painters affected you?
LM: With Guston, it’s to do with his personal fights with representation and abstraction, how he was rejected and ostracized for his move from abstraction to representation. He talked about not being able to continue with abstraction because of television, because of the Vietnam War. Due to the complexity of the world around him, he just couldn’t rationalize making abstract canvases anymore. There were real repercussions from that for him. It wasn’t that long ago that this was seen as a mistake, as a real threat. Especially since he was going toward comic culture, low culture.
In terms of de Kooning, the women series is kind of the ground zero misogynistic black hole for me. For me, it’s about as ugly as representation can get in terms of representation of the female form, and the idea of what is imbued in the representation of the female body on canvas. It’s like staring into a fire or peering straight down over the edge of a high building. It’s interesting to see something that is so incredibly ugly—yet de Kooning had an amazing material capability. There’s this lushness to his work, but it’s so surprisingly ugly at the same time. That’s why I call de Kooning my ground zero. Also, this history is very particular in terms of the big kids of abstract New York School painting coming to Emma Lake and sorting out the locals. They were coming at the point when New York was losing interest in them. So they were seeking their own refuge, and dividing the community they found themselves running to.
NB: This sense of dividing manifests itself in the textile process of felting that you use. What is your dialogue with these ambiguous, colourful forms in terms of figuration versus abstraction?
LM: I bounce back and forth between figuration and abstraction. This is again about my history of growing up in Saskatchewan, in terms of the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops and the figures of Greenberg and Newman. But it was the local community that began to position itself as oppositional to what was happening at Emma Lake. That oppositional position was one that tended to be quite craft-heavy. At the time, there was this conversation happening about a kind of impossibility of the figure, the impossibility of figuration, and how it could only become irrelevant or nostalgic or a romantic gesture within the postwar historical moment. This is the idea that abstraction is the appropriate venue for disinterested aesthetic contemplation, and figuration is the medium for social commentary.
Those divisions no longer exist, but I’m interested in the moments where that conflict was believed and strongly felt. So these are the kind of things that I’m interested in picking apart, and I do it by bouncing back and forth between historically polarized forms in modernist history. It was very macho, very male in those days. The local painters who were interested in engaging in Emma Lake were predominantly male. It was a lot of cigar smoking and drinking; those are the facts of it. You have to remember that in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Saskatoon they still didn’t allow men and women to drink together in public bars. The idea that a local woman would have the opportunity to enter and to engage with these dominating male art figures is unlikely at best. It’s that fight of the town and the country, the provincial and the international that interests me.
NB: When you were growing up in Saskatoon, were you interested in American culture?
LM: As a young child, I was fascinated with American television. We had three channels and I was glued to them. It was a way of looking at a world outside the one I was experiencing in a very small community in rural Saskatchewan. There is a return to a kind of decentralized art practice being discussed in art criticism now. There are discussions in the art world about local involvement—its concerns and geographical specificity about all these things. For me, the renewed interest in the decentralized and local triggers the earlier conversation about what happened at Emma Lake, and certainly what happens out here on the west coast of Canada. I moved to Victoria from Calgary eight years ago, and that was an incredible culture shock. There’s a different idea in the West in terms of what’s locally sustainable and the kind of lifestyle it generates. Also, the kind of object production or lack of object production that happens here is interesting.
NB: While you work as a professor at the University of Victoria, your work is not academic. How do you think of the relationship between academia and art production?
LM: People working in the arts within a university environment have a dilemma. The visual arts are an odd fit within the context of university research. What constitutes research within a visual art practice is an area that is generally misunderstood, miscategorized and fought over. Visual art has its own deep sense of vagueness, so there is uncertainty within university culture as to how to categorize what someone does in a studio. How can you put this vagueness into the language of research and academic publishing? So now I focus on the making in the studio, and that is my research.