Susannah Martin, who paints large canvases based firmly in the tradition of figurative realism but with her own very distinctive approach, can be distinguished by the three elements that feature in her paintings – her lifelike people are always naked, the natural world is ever-present, and in many of her recent paintings she includes playful props such as helium balloons and three-dimensional cartoon characters.
Born in New York City, Martin grew up in rural New Jersey. Her early experiences with nature as a child were very intense and personal, her happiest moments spent playing alone in a park, on the beach or at the riverbank. Her family was quite poor, her father having died when she was young and her mother looking after a family of five, so she worked part-time throughout high school and college, often assisting artists and architects, restoring paintings, and helping with printing workshops. Always fascinated by art, she studied at New York University under John Kacere, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Peter Campus. During her last year of study she began to work for Sandro La Ferla Backdrops, and after graduating she painted murals and worked as a scenic artist for film and photography.
As Martin explains, ‘Sandro is an exceptional painter and enjoyed painting the backdrops himself, so he started a business painting and renting them out at a daily rate to photographers and film companies, primarily for advertising. There was a stock of over four hundred backdrops, huge canvases, and he had a fine business going for many years until Photoshop came along. I learned about set-painting techniques by watching him. In 1990 I went independent, painting backdrops and murals in New York and Germany. I kept doing it for so long, more than twenty years, because the money is good and reliable, but also because I loved it. I’m still completely fascinated by large-scale painting, but it’s rare that a mural client gives you complete freedom, and the set painting is often only used for a short time and then thrown away.’
In 1991 she decided to relocate to Europe, and set up home and studio in Berlin. She now lives and works in Frankfurt, making a living as a full-time painter.
For Martin, painting naked people in natural settings has a strong personal and political element: ‘The human body as subject matter is always political; there is no way around that. The naked body is probably the most confrontational subject that an artist can take on. We all have intense feelings when looking at naked fellow human beings, and how we react to an image of the human body connects with our most intimate personal fears and desires, as well as social conditioning and expectations. I have been censored, blocked, banned and harassed many times on social media for painting naked people. It is absurd really, how could looking at another human being and painting a painting of them be seen as criminal or offensive? Everything that I do with paint is done out of love for humanity and the natural world. It is heartbreaking that some people prefer to see people being hurt and abused rather than being naturally naked; I think that’s because there are people who are afraid to show their love of humanity, afraid that it makes them look weak.’
The realistic settings, always outdoors in nature and often incorporating wild animals, are also vitally important. ‘We have an outrageously arrogant position toward nature,’ she explains, ‘believing that our vanity alone justifies the extermination of thousands of species of plants and animals. We’re prepared to destroy everything in our path to maintain our lofty position and satisfy our vanity and greed. One of my main intentions with my paintings is to break through the artifice of the traditional form of naked figures in a landscape. I want them to feel more like records of real interactions with nature than fantasies of that experience. It’s true that I haven’t yet included enough bug bites and blood, though you’ll notice that the woman in the gorge painting is a bit scratched up on her belly from rock climbing!’
Susannah Martin’s website, where you will find many more of her paintings, is here. The quotations from Susannah come from interviews with Jonathan Levine in 2019, which you will find in full here, and with David Herrl of SubtleTea online magazine in 2022, which is here.