The Energising Properties of Open Dialogue: An Interview with Martine Johanna

Martine Johanna is a Dutch artist whose work touches on themes of loss, grief, and inadequacy; the processing of both inner and outer worlds and how we deal with things. Her work is so much deeper than pretty people and vivid colours. Martine Johanna is a woman of two worlds. There is the real world where society feeds into conspiracy thinkers and sensation seekers, and the parallel world that only a select few manage to travel to – a land of many threads, such as equal opinions, open dialogue.

Keep reading to learn more about Martine’s educated and adventurous views of the world we live in, and her journey of coming to terms with the darker parts of life including loss and grief. Martine’s work encourages conversations about opinions and topics that recently have been forced on us to accept without second thought. 

Your website says your work is largely autobiographical. Do you endeavour to show all of yourself to your audience or do you prefer to promote one aspect of yourself through your work?

I think all artist work is somehow autobiographical and maybe even ego driven, but promote sounds too commercial. It shows a processing of both inner and outer worlds and how we deal with things. In painting, drawing or writing I process different aspects of myself, my thoughts, feelings and self-reflection. Some of those are comments on myself and some a reflection of what is going on in aspects of the world that I live, see or read about that interacts with how I feel. There is a lot of duality there because I do not believe in absolutism.

Do you think the change your work took on after the loss your mother will stay and evolve, or is it a more temporary form of grief counselling and learning to cope without such an important figure in your life?

I feel loss is something that erodes us, it leaves parts of us empty and while dealing with evening out that void with time and rituals, we question ourselves, our shortcomings and guilt, those aspects that say; am I enough, is what I’m doing good enough? I think that dealing with death is existential, we have this wonderful thing called life that, if we can, we should embrace and enjoy, but failure and self-loathing for not doing the ultimate and feel meaningful in some way is always lurking.

Your new works, during the first look, appear happy and light. But as the viewer looks closer and reads the titles, they become deeper and darker. Why have you chosen to portray these dark feelings such as grief and loss in such a light and colourful way?

I think I do this because that is what I see when I paint all these spots of colour. Plus, as I see it, nature comes to exist out of the potential of joy, life is amazing, but we also need the processes of failure to appreciate joy. There are cold hues and warm hues, dirty and clean, all colours carry meaning to us. For me this reflects openness, and to be able to have an open dialogue with myself and others.

You mentioned in your ‘Somethings Wrong’ statement that “The concept reflects also a disappointment in the impending disappearance of female gains within our patriarchal society.” What do you mean by this? Don’t you think that females are going to gain more with the ever-growing women’s rights movement?

That specific exhibition was just after my mother’s and mother-in-laws passing and the presidential election in the US. There was this build up of euphoric hope to break that glass ceiling, for that hope to be completely turned around by having something absolutely opposite at the wheel. There are so many comments about then candidate Clinton that people didn’t “like” her, which is a standard that is almost only used for female politicians. I feel that if we don’t change our ways of seeing, nothing will change. Also too many people, women just as much, undermine each other by taking offense by proxy, making no subject free to discuss about without condemnation. These symptoms make society more and more separated and feed into conspiracy thinkers and sensation seekers.  I think even though this happens more extremely online, that this is one of the greatest treats of our society and the art world as well.

People need to stop preaching and start listening. You don’t have to agree but at least you can understand. We should not lose our ability to be open, see possibility, to be inspired and driven through alternative eyes.

In your series “Life is but a dream”, you have intimate graphite drawings, translated into larger acrylic paintings that contain subtle differences that only the attentive viewer with notice. Why have you created these subtle differences? Do you like to challenge your viewer rather than handing the meaning to them on a silver platter? Or is there another motive behind this conscious decision?

Through drawing my ideas, I found out that the painting made in a different moment and medium is almost as if being slightly different or parallel reality. It is like an exploration for different truths and possibilities.

After reading some of your more recent artist statements, it’s very clear that you have a deep interest for parallels. Has this interest been with you from a young age or has it developed through your experiences as an artist?

I’ve always been interested in the narratives that exist in families, experiences, friends and the otherworldly, the myths, the urban legends and the incredible. It is like we live certain life narratives over and over again, in a different set of time, conditions, combinations of people, objects and arenas that influence our life views and belief systems. That’s why believing in only one truth is nonsensical; there are too many threads and only one common denominator, which is the universe.

The bio on your website describes that your girls are within their own “internal psychic landscape”. Why do you create an imaginary landscape for each of them instead of portraying them in our own landscape in the 21st Century or even in the same world that is your imagination?

The landscape is not literal, it is a sort of universal turmoil of different stages that is relatable to who feels they were, are, or want to be in the same position.

You previously had a career in fashion design before switching to painting and drawing. Why did you choose painting and drawing over the other artistic fields such a photography or sculpture?

I think it is the intimacy that I like. I also write, research subjects obsessively, philosophise, make photos, and from those photos I make collages in my process. After that comes drawing and painting, through those each time the image alters and has different characteristics. I like those steps even though it is very time consuming. I sometimes crave for new ways but I’m very much a creature of habit; maybe it is even comforting, I feel often that that hinders me to explore media outside of those habits.

You mentioned to me that you lecture. Where and what do you lecture on? Does it coincide with your practice?

The most I do is give lectures about concept and story building, creative research into meaning and interpretation of art and design in context with time and place. I also coach students in their projects and challenge their perspectives and standpoints. This influenced me in a way to be more curious about the world and different views as well. I love working with students, open dialogue is so energising.

Would you advice people wanting to become successful artists, to study or to just throw themselves into their practice?

Whatever works for you… I do find that artists that take courses and even have master degrees often have more chances to make it in the art world through being included in projects and or nominated trough official instances. Although there are ways, it’s harder to do it on your own. Also when you have more material knowledge and historical context, through studies, it is easier to break the rules because you know the rules. And in art school you make friends for life.

What can we look forward to from you in 2019?

I’m working on a complete new body of work will be exhibiting again in the US and in the Netherlands and hope to exhibit in other spots in Europe. I want to make experimental books and diverse prints as well.


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