Many people have not travelled half as much as all the places Martin Golland has actually lived in the world. Now based in Ottawa, the artist was born in Montpellier, France, and has lived in Turkey, Puerto Rico, Miami, and Toronto. In addition to this, Golland has exhibited nationally and internationally in such places as Dusseldorf, Toronto, Guelph, and Greater Victoria. His work, abstract yet firm and puffed with colour and texture, earned him the Honourable Mention prize at the 11th Annual RBC Painting Competition; as a result, his work was exhibited in various museums and galleries across Canada. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor in Painting at the University of Ottawa.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I think the first time I had the notion of what an artist is was in 2nd Grade at Biscayne Elementary School in Miami. Our history class had a bio page on Picasso, who, as a kid, copied his dad’s paintings in chalk. I thought “If he can be an artist at nine, so can I”.
How would you describe your work, what you do?
I make collages and paint on canvas and paper, primarily. My recent body of work is a continuation of my invented architectural spaces. These paintings describe a fictional meeting point between built environments and the natural world. The paintings begin from a bricolage of abandoned photos, small drawings and large collages that I use as initial reference points. The source material becomes the starting point that prompts further invention on the canvas. My work is created from a broad range of painterly languages that respond to the contradictory histories of representational painting. During the painting process, subjects such as the screen, frame, mirror, window and curtain are influenced by the physical properties of paint itself.
Do you have an artist statement?
My work is about attempting to translate my ideas on being in the world, especially the conundrum of integrating an inner world with an outer reality.
Where would you say most of your inspiration comes from?
The impetus for my work comes from being in the city. My work is informed by all kinds of elements that catch my eye in day-to-day living. I take tons of pictures and short videos everywhere I go. I’m always on the lookout for unexpected discoveries while I get from A to B. Some of my best paintings have come about as a result of straying off the path, following my curiosity, and discovering new subjects and places. With regards to what happens once I get to the studio, inspiration comes way after the initial idea has presented itself, and only once after I get myself out of my own way, so to speak. I don’t know, and shouldn’t try to know what the final result will be. The painting arrives during the unexplainable process of making. As I meander through the myriad decisions, I respond to the circumstances of the painting during the process as best I can.
Since you have traveled so much, how important is it, in your opinion, to travel in conjunction with creating art?
I think it’s essential to travel in order to expand our knowledge of art. I try to visit the paintings, buildings and artworks I love the most. I need to encounter the art object in person, to touch it with my eyes. As an artist, I learn about art from studying the phrenology of the surface, the details that give away the (sometimes secret) processes of making. There is nothing like the thrill of feeling the presence of the artist in the work, the fact that their touch has been recorded and transferred over into the work in a direct manner. Half the task of painting is acquiring this knowledge about how it was made.
Do you have a favourite place, out of all the places you’ve lived?
For an experience of nature, the wild, I’d say that living on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean when I was a young kid was probably my happiest time of my formative years. I was being home-schooled at the time, so, needless to say, I had a lot of time in my hands. I’d leave the house after breakfast and come back only when I got hungry, at dinner-time. What a luxury, now that I think back, to be able to drift around and simply occupy yourself with your surroundings. We lived in a hilly town called Humacao, known for its banana plantations and Pentecostal churches which dotted the hillsides. This is when I started to take drawing seriously, and venture into watercolour, at around 7. It was in this tropical environment that I gravitated to making pictures in earnest, mostly as a way to occupy my time during the quiet, hot hours of the afternoon. It’s kind of all the education I needed. That, and learning all the Spanish gospel songs broadcasted over the PA systems across the town.
Why the medium of oil paint?
I came to oil paint late, actually. It was a medium I loathed for the longest time. It was so serious! I thought I needed to become a good artist before I could paint in oils, so I delayed working with them until University. Now, it’s a medium that is all encompassing. It resists doing what you want it to. It’s both frustrating and rewarding. You can’t "learn" oils, you just hop on and go for the ride and hope you arrive kind of where you wanted to go to begin with.
Is there any other medium you enjoy working with?
I’m currently working a bunch of hand-held sculptures, helmets and masks as a way into some new paintings. I’m always looking for new ways to work out ideas, and am open to what other materials offer. More and more I see these sculptures as an extension of my collages. It’s collage, only in 3D. All the same thought processes are taking place, whether it’s optical, or physical.
What draws you to the treatment of subjects and ideas as abstraction?
If you look closely, and especially in person, you’ll find that all my works are rooted in representation. I may treat my subjects loosely, but the heart of the matter is in the observed environment within the photo. They veer into unrecognizability in places, which is my way of questioning the notion of what is represented, and offering other ways to interpret the visible.
What are your favourite themes?
My favourite theme would probably be the notion of difficult beauty.
Do you have a favourite piece of art amongst your work?
Not really. I always have an itch to find the next painting, probably because I’m restless. I prefer to set my sights on the next thing I haven’t seen before.
Is there a message you wish to communicate with your art?
I find painting to be less about messages, and more about creating conundrums. The riddle of the thing, you know? A painting should nag at you, taunt a bit, and not give the fruit of itself too easily. I want my works to provoke active looking and a prolonged viewing experience.
How would you describe your creative process?
I would describe it as neurotic (!) I am always looking for ways to short-circuit the ‘super-ego’; the football coach in all of us who tells us that nothing we do is good enough. There are some antidotes to this. I think there are always ways of accessing our creativity, and it usually involves play, and some degree of irreverence. I think the right ingredients for working include a desire for focused tinkering, curiosity, and a tendency to want to break the rules.
What does your work mean to you?
My work is a way to organize myself. It’s a way to investigate lived experience, or at least reflect upon it in some way. I think this is an indelible part of the human experience of living, so it goes beyond rational thought in some way, to include to other aspects of ourselves, such as our drives and fears. It’s an insatiable desire to want to make some sense of the world, and then communicate our findings and musings without needing to explain it away.
Art can take on so many means for different people; how do you personally define “art”?
This is similar to the last question. What I’d frame the question as "what do you think people need from art?"; to which I’d say that art is not for everyone. But if you enjoy living with art, engaging in art in any way, then I think we all can agree on a few basic tenets: that art delineates the exemplary aspects of our lives, that it is the part where we ask the questions about what gives our life meaning. This of course leaves ample room for the meaningless, the unknowable, and the absurd.
Do you have a favourite stylistic period in the history of art?
My favourite period would have to be the Mannerist period, which was roughly 1650-1700 or thereabouts. In any case, it was a time when almost every aspect of what art stood for and represented in the Renaissance (order, symmetry, perfection, divinity, excellence, and so on), was questioned. Probably because they thought that everything had already been achieved, and so much so, that it deflated the younger artists’ desire to excel, to compete on the previous generation’s level. Who could beat the Sistine Chapel? The Last Supper? Everyone was crestfallen, dejected and bitten with "ennui". So what they did was intentionally break every rule in their grasp in order to reverse the direction of artistic endeavour, and embrace distortion, disjunctive space, disproportionality, and ugliness.
If you could sit down to coffee with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
In most cases, I find the work of an artist and their personality to be anathema to one another. I wouldn’t want to sit down for a chat with Lucian Freud, if you know what I mean. An exception I hope would be Joseph Beuys. I feel the work and the man to be one and the same - full of vitality, charisma, invention and dream.
As an artist, what has been your greatest achievement?
To be flexible enough to keep changing and growing as an artist. I’m not at the stage where I can really look at past achievement, only to say that the daily practice of painting is already a privilege, and as such, an achievement. I’m really privileged to be at a job that I love.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
As a teacher at the University of Ottawa, I’m asked by students about the career of an artist frequently. So many students are eager to be recognized, which on the one hand, I understand and relate to. But I think what most overlook in their aspirations to be validated from the outside - the arts community, collectors, galleries, etc - is the rock-solid foundation an artist must quietly build through the work we do when we’re alone in the studio. Making art is a way to get to understand ourselves, our way of being in the world. This comes first, above anything else. I think the most important task is to find ways of staying connected to the basic, primary reasons why we wanted to be an artist in the first place.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’ve just finished three solo shows in the last year, so now I’m back to the studio building working out some new ideas from the ground up. I’m particularly drawn to working on paper at the moment, particularly Mylar film. Also, I’m making a bunch of small sculptures, so basically, I’m trying to keep my hands busy in order to be one step ahead of myself.