beinArt Interview with Lily Mae Martin by Julie Winters
Lily Mae Martin creates art that is decidedly unconventional: figurative pieces that are uncluttered but not simple. Sometimes the focus is on body parts that aren’t necessarily “pretty,” or faces are pulled and stretched or simply obscured. Yet she has received possibly the most flak for her portrayals of something totally normal: women exploring their own sexuality. How surreal, indeed, that what is usual could be considered offensive or, at the very least, somehow too much.
Martin was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. She received her BFA in drawing from the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne in 2008 and currently resides in the United Kingdom.
Not that I think people should make work to shock people just for the sake of shocking, but I think artists are too scared to explore what they want to explore and push ideas that really interest them, because of the risk of not selling and therefore not being validated. – Lily Mae Martin
Julie Winters: How early did you start exploring art seriously, and at what point did you decide it was something you wanted to study formally?
Lily Mae Martin: I have always drawn. I was thinking more and more about art towards the end of high school but still really didn’t know how to pursue it (other than doing flyers for bands). While I was working for the National Gallery of Victoria, I had the opportunity to work with many different types of artists and saw that there was more in the art world than just doing things for bands and having small exhibitions here and there. It got me excited, and more importantly, it got me motivated. That’s when I decided to pursue the college I never thought I’d get into.
JW: In addition to drawing and painting, you also experiment with photography. How did your interest in that medium evolve, and does your photography “eye” play into your drawings and paintings as well?
LMM: I have always loved photos. Old photos, new photos, my photos, other people’s photos, I just really enjoy them. When I was little I remember getting “the world’s smallest camera” in “the world’s biggest showbag” from the Royal Melbourne Show and really loving that. But I was pretty bad at taking photos. Then, at one of the many high schools I went to, they had a course in which a photographer (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) came in and taught a few of the students learning art. We played around with Ilford’s disposable black and white cameras (which Ilford has unfortunately discontinued). I really liked the chance aspect of these cameras. I walked around Melbourne and rural parts of Victoria and just took photos. You had to think about light, distance, composition…all the things people don’t really think about with digital. In fact, my first ever exhibition was a photography show. None of my works were figurative either. All shot in black and white.
I really do think photography is probably one of the biggest influences on my work. I think about a final drawing much the way I’d think about taking a photo: the placement of the figure, the light, the negative space. Only, the processes are very different! I guess that is why I am also so drawn to Caravaggio’s work; the use of light is so striking in his works, especially the portraits he did of people. I like striking images. I like isolated images. In my works I like to try and be bold, so they can stand on their own and not need a series of things to complement one another. Black and white has always stood out for me.
I still take loads of photos now – of everything, everyone, and all the places I go to. I also collect old black and white photographs from flea markets and junk stores. The best country for that was Germany. I am not sure what I am going to do with all of them, but I have been collecting them for years and I am sure I’ll work out something I want to do with them in time.
JW: Caravaggio’s influence on your work is evident in “Seated Nude,” (right) which was done in acrylic paint, a medium you had eschewed for a time. What led you away from acrylic paint? How did it feel to go back to it?
LMM: I used to paint in acrylics all the time. Until a few years ago I used to paint in a lot more of a cartoon style and acrylic was always good for that, as it dried quickly and its texture tends to be more flat. I don’t know why I began to have something against it…. I think I just got caught up in being a bit of a wanker about art materials and having prejudices against certain things for whatever reason. I think that was silly of me: art supplies are art supplies, and in the end, I don’t think people care too much about what you used to make the image – it’s ultimately about the image. It felt nice to shed some of that prejudice and just paint for the sake of painting!
JW: You participated in a summer 2010 show, “Metamorphosis,” at the CoproGallery in Santa Monica, CA; you noted in your blog that “‘Metamorphosis’ will be testimony to a huge international movement of figurative artists who have resisted current trends in the art world and remained true to their artistic vision.” Can you describe the nature of these trends and what they represent to you?
LMM: With regard to trends in the art scene, I find that the most detrimental of all trends is the desperation to sell your work. There are a lot of amazing artists who seem to limit themselves to what sells, as if that is what validates their work. It saddens me, as I don’t see that as the point of making art. You get a lot of artists who churn out the same sort of thing for years and years and never really develop any ideas or develop their technique. Therefore, their work becomes kind of hollow: “just another pretty picture on your living room wall.” Or they tailor their work to what is popular at the time, which also makes for hollow work. Not that I think people should make work to shock people just for the sake of shocking, but I think artists are too scared to explore what they want to explore and push ideas that really interest them, because of the risk of not selling and therefore not being validated. I understand that artists want to make a living from their work, but I think you can do it in other ways rather than selling yourself, such as grants and residencies. So I guess that trends in art can represent people’s insecurities to me, our need for validation.
JW: “The Hunted” (second from top) is a striking image – the mask is at an angle inconsistent to the woman’s body and both shields her face and seems to challenge the viewer as if to say, “What are you looking at?” How did this piece come together?
LMM: This is one of the many images I just had an idea for and created, and left the thinking for later. I think the foxes were on my mind a bit, as I have been drawing a lot of foxes and other animals for my daughter. A lot of my work talks about female sexuality, and my husband and I were talking about experiences and it made me think about how many women put on a mask with their sexuality. I was thinking for this piece about masturbation, and how some women use their bodies and sexuality as a sort of weapon, or device with which they try and gain some sense of power over men. However, in doing this I feel that they then become the exploited, the hunted.
JW: In several of your pieces, the subjects are using their hands to deform their expressions. In “Hysteria,” (right) this almost seems calculated by the subject to draw the viewer’s attention from her exposed vagina; in an untitled piece from 2010 (pen and ink on paper, 420 by 297 mm), it just seems to be a fun pose by the subjects, but it nevertheless prevents the viewer from knowing how the subjects really look. Can you give us a glimpse into what is behind these pieces in which the subjects are shown but not revealed?
LMM: When I started this type of work in 2008, I was thinking a lot about how people react in front of the camera: how much we love to see ourselves, but ourselves in a certain way. I then began photographing people pulling crazy faces in front of the camera, encouraging people not to worry about what they looked like.
I guess I just went with the style (of drawing) and have dealt with far more complex issues, and the original idea has been used to express them.
“Hysteria” I see as being similar to the images in the “Scream” series (bottom right). All the faces tend to be obscured, while the genitalia, the gender, are very evident. I was thinking a lot about women being dismissed as “crazy.” “Hysteria,” to me, is an empowering but angry piece. I guess you don’t really know where to look, and that’s what I wanted with it.
I think with the untitled piece, which is of my husband and me, we were going through a life change and felt very unsupported by some of our peers, so it was our equivalent of giving someone the middle finger. And we look pretty horrible in that particular drawing, but we had fun doing it and that is what mattered.
JW: “Me, Myself” (right) is a wonderful depiction of how people can direct negative energy at themselves. You created this piece at a particular crossroad in your life; does it still speak to you in the same way?
LMM: I have very much moved away from the issues I was dealing with. “Me, Myself” was an internal battle I had been dealing with since living in Melbourne, where some things were happening socially that I let affect me too much. This was my acknowledgement of that battle, and how I had let myself get to a point of even bullying myself just because others had. I’m very far away from that now. My (almost) two years of travel and all the good, bad, and ugly things that have happened since then have really given me a new me, and new things to focus on.
JW: Some of your images have been censored on MySpace and Facebook and even for flyers for the launch of an album on which one of your drawings was used. Has this censorship or negative feedback of others altered how you present your art or pursue showings?
LMM: Well, I eventually deleted my MySpace account—it was always more useful for musicians anyway—and I have deleted my personal Facebook account recently, too. I’m really tired of these fads, and I just end up wasting so much time on them! The only change is that I am careful with what I put on my art page on Facebook. Anything that I know is going to cause alarm I just upload onto my own site and blog. But I still find the censorship very unfortunate. However, there are lots of things I find unfortunate about those social networking sites! I am glad to be rid of them! It has had very little effect on how I will show my work, other than that I won’t show it there. Their loss.
JW: What about your work challenges you most now?
LMM: Size and pens are becoming an issue. I want to draw bigger, but I need a proper setup for that. And my technique is changing again, and the pens are just dying so much faster now! It would be nice to have a studio with other artists working there, but money is a real problem. I am looking into fixing that at the moment, though; I really do miss the vibe of working around other artists. It really does encourage you.
JW: Tell us what’s going on with your work at the moment.
LMM: At the moment I am really thinking about zombies, sex, and squirrels. I think I am keeping them all very separate, though. I’m interested in zombies from a historical point of view… As I mentioned earlier, there is only one horror film I enjoy. I’m not into zombie movies or anything, but how they became apart of the collective conscious is what interests me.
Sex, I think, will be an ongoing theme in my work, as it is something that is on my mind – personally as well as looking at our culture and what becomes acceptable, why, what is taboo, what I observe, etc.
I have a few drawings on the way at the moment. I was painting, but I get less enjoyment out of that, so I am sticking to what I enjoy. I’m thinking of experimenting with some different media soon, but I don’t want to talk too much about things that haven’t happened yet!