Ruth Marten: Strange Bedfellows

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday April 11, 2012


From Strange Bedfellows, by Ruth Marten: Wild Woman of New Caledonia, 2012; Museum, 2012; Mother and Child, 2009

In 2006 Ruth Marten was among the artists selected to create a painting for a timeline of American Illustration. Her subject was a sign for a 14th Street barbershop, painted on a discarded construction sign, with an incredible African-inspired hairstyle.

Asked about her career highlights, she wrote, “I got my first illustration job from Jean-Paul Goude at Esquire in 1973. Since then, I've illustrated for all the major publishers, magazines, and music companies. One week, I had the dubious honor of being published in both Sesame Street and Screw magazines. In and around this, I had a two-year career as a fashion illustrator specializing in shoes, eight years as a tattooist, and throughout, I've exhibited my paintings and drawings in New York and in Europe. I've been lucky.”

A show of her new work, Strange Bedfellows opens this Thursday at Hosfelt Gallery, NYC. Much more than luck is involved here, so I caught up with Ruth for an updated Q&A this week.

Peggy Roalf: When did you arrive at the idea of working over found backgrounds, such as antique prints and discarded constructions signs?

Ruth Marten: The street sign used for the American Illustration picture was a serendipitous find but now that I think of it, so were the prints I found at the Flea. The pleasure of working with other artists (long gone or anonymous tradesmen) was too inviting to pass up and since I've always engineered all my images, it's been entirely pleasurable to intrude myself into existing imagery. My show at Hosfelt Gallery, "Strange Bedfellows," is specifically about such collaboration, about hunting and finding and repurposing.

PR: In Histoire un-Naturelle, you’ve conjured up the kind of creatures and situations that are so much more terrifying than anything Captain Cook might have dreaded on his 18th-centure voyages of discovery. What vessel have you tapped into that’s so full of fears of the unknown?

RM: It's a pleasure being asked such intelligent questions but, to answer this one properly, I'd have to be more psychologically aware and that might hobble my imagination. I don't think that my ideas are more provocative or creepy than those of others but I do nothing to restrain them.

PR: You must be tired of this question by now, but what about your obsession with hair? Are there new frontiers in art for you, based on new hair-like materials?

RM: There are few motifs more universal than hair and our shared mammalian attributes guarantee that everyone has a hair story. I also think that it worked well as a surrogate for the figure, has sculptural beauty, is a cultural barometer and is loaded with lots of subconscious attractions and phobias. I used to imagine impossible hairdos and then bump into them on the street lending immediate credence to the expression, "you can't make this stuff up." You can and I did for 17 years but, now that I'm working with historical matter, it is still part of the vocabulary.

PR: Your line work is so fine and precise that it’s impossible to see where the antique prints you use have been extended through your additions. Were you first a printmaker? Or were you given a 10-H pencil as a child?

RM: I'm principally a draughtsman, not a painter. I worship drawing and believe it is the skeleton upon which everything else is hung. With the prints, the goal has often been to make my additions in the exact manner (or as close as I am capable of) as the original, thus fooling the eye into believing my little dramas. I use acrylic ink and these wonderful Japanese brushes called Silver Ultra Minis. What a name!

My interest in 18th-century prints was entirely unexpected as I've done few prints and hadn't taken the time to appreciate them though I did have an after school job in high school at Argosy Book Store, filing things away, messengering and running the elevator on Saturdays. It still looks and smells the same, a rarity these days. What I now realize attracts me to them is the history, the propriety and officialness of the information; what I consider a fallacy or invention in some cases. Like many children of the post war period, my first exposure to art was through Golden Books, an inexpensive, varied and seemingly endless series of children's books illustrated by the great designers of the time.

I was fortunate to have been an Illustrator myself and a tattooist. I guess the common link here is drawing, paper, line, story. When I add to an 18th century print of whalers, reptiles, a mosaic from Herculaneum or North Sea lepers, I can revise history to suit myself. In truth, this subjective revision has always existed; one look at the reptile depictions on a page commissioned by the Duc de Buffon (he had armies of engravers hunched over copperplates to fulfill his dream of depicting the known world) reveals what looks like a Dachshund with scales!

PR: Will your new sculptures, including what might be an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-valise be on view at Hosfelt Gallery? (Titled Museum, it includes rocks paint, wood table and velvet, above). It’s so pretty it makes me wonder, is there a secret compartment full of horrifying stuff below the surface?

RM: I find it interesting that you feel dread in these things. That's great. I was in Paris last year for "Drawing Now," a drawing fair at the Carrousel de Louvre and baled one afternoon to visit the Musee des Arts Decoratifs where I fell in love with a Marie Antoinette-era picnic basket that had custom holes for the cups, the saucers, etc. A custom opening devised for one very particular object became so fascinating to me that I had to create my own such container. I've always obsessed over the little wooden pedestals the Chinese place rocks or vessels on and I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Noble's wild ceramic versions of the same. Mine is more Hopper than Hapsburg, I'll admit, but I'll take an H.C.Westerman over a Tiepolo any day.

The opening reception for Ruth Marten | Strange Bedfellows is Thursday, April 12, 6-8 pm at Hosfelt Gallery NY, 531 West 36th Street, between 10th-11th Avenues [access only from 10th Ave. due to construction], NY, NY. More about Ruth Marten.



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