An interview with Madeline Von Foerster

by JL SchnabelPosted on

Madeline Von Foester’s newest body of exuberantly narrative paintings, ‘The Golden Toad’ opened last night at Seattle’s Roq La Rue Gallery. The show, a visual foretelling of fairytales of the future, combines an old world technique of painting with the anxious threat of an impending nostalgia for the natural elements we have taken for granted. Focusing on the convergence of man and nature within the framework of collected relics and natural specimens, the work is imbued with a sense of a lost, otherworldly era, while bringing current anxieties about the future to the surface with a beautifully subtle approach. Recently we were able to speak with Madeline before her opening, view the full interview and images of her new work below.

Your new show ‘The Golden Toad’ garners its title from a fairytale you have mentioned you were sure to have read. While this tale doesn’t actually exist, can you talk about what about your “memory” of the tale included?

That is a great question. The fairytale in my head might have been something about a princess who gets lost in the woods and finds a magical golden toad… Or it might have been a prince. It was very inchoate and more of a feeling than anything else. I found myself wanting to replicate this enigmatic experience for viewers of these paintings, to remind them of something that never existed, and inspire them to invent a tale for themselves.

What were you inspired by as you worked on the paintings for ‘The Golden Toad”?

When I’m developing my ideas, I usually have to have no music, or only classical music – some favorites are Schubert, Purcell, Chopin, and Prokofiev. While I’m painting I need really stimulating music to keep my energy up, and my tastes are pretty eclectic in that regard. For these paintings, some favorites were Florence and the Machine, TV on the Radio, and Neurosis for bad days.

Are the figures in your paintings based on models? If not, how are they conjured into your paintings?

Almost none of my recent paintings have used any models – they are all based on drawings done out of my head. So, “conjured” is a good choice of words. I sit there and draw and draw, until they look right to me. I’m enamored of the ladies in many Renaissance paintings who seem equally rendered out of the artist’s brain, rather than from reality. It creates a different experience for the viewer: we relate to this person in an iconic rather than specific sense. My hope is that the viewer can then inject their own meaning into the subject, rather than being distanced by the specificity of an individualized portrait.

 Does the choice to use the Renaissance era technique of oil & egg tempera paint inform the imagery / way you paint? Why is the physical process of creating this type of paint important to you?

Yes, it has a large effect I think!. The technique is ideal for meticulous detail, and so I suppose, that is partly why there is a lot of it in my paintings. It does not work well on canvas, and therefore I paint on smooth panels, which are less forgiving of imperfection than canvas. Also, since the tempera underpainting is so important, the paintings end up working best when they are thoroughly planned and drawn first, which also effects one’s spontaneity.

 What is an average work day for you like in the studio?

Somehow there never seems to be an average day. I wish there was. Just the sound of that phrase is so reassuring, suggesting competence and normalcy. I always feel a bit more like I’m in an obstacle course.

Your new show has a focus on the future, and yet retains elements of the past, i.e. the Victorian obsession with cabinets of curiosities. In some of your past work, as well as with this new body of work, even people are “catalogued” into these cabinets. Can you talk about these choices?

Yes, these cabinets keep coming up in my paintings! I’m kind of obsessed with them, and I feel they say something about how we humans relate to nature. We prefer nature when it is something under our control, beautifully displayed and rigorously contained. When I paint something made from wood, like these cabinets, for me it typically symbolizes our destruction of nature, and how pervasive and overlooked that is. We never relate to something made of wood as a killed tree, though that’s what it is. I appreciate your observation of the people inside the cabinets, because that was very important in these paintings: humanity is ever further confined by our disfunctional relationship to nature. We can’t seem to escape it – a perfect example being my painting itself which is on a wooden panel! So, the confinement is spiritual, and also physical, as our abuse begins more and more to encroach on our own wellbeing, options, and those of future generations.

 In past works, people and nature are often converging in an interesting way, even occasionally morphing into one another. Can you talk about this emphasis on natural elements as wonders/curiosities?

I’m really fascinated by this human/nature conundrum. We are part of nature, created from it, yet there is this undeniable separation. Partly it seems due to the Promethean gift of language, and the resulting brain that squawks and chatters and evaluates relentlessly. It is only too easy to be alienated from the physical world and the occurring moment – our brains are simply magnificent, overachieving factories of meaning-making and abstraction. I used to have a great poster on my wall, many years ago, torn from a punk zine. It read: ‘my brain thinks that it can kill my body, and go on living.’ Isn’t that just profound? Our consciousness really is that narcissistic, and if you extrapolate it to humanity (brain) relating to the planet (body) it’s true on that level as well.

Can you pinpoint the moment you decided to become an artist?

You know, I think it happened when I was about four or five years old. The frustration began at that time, too, of not being able to depict something as well as I wanted. That used to drive me crazy when I was a little girl! It still does, actually.

What do you imagine the future to be like?

Quite honestly, I’m not optimistic. It is very painful to admit that, because even a few years ago I was far more hopeful. And yet that changes little in how I go about things. Martin Luther King said, ‘Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I’d still plant my apple tree.’ So, we have to do our best in an effort that might all come to nothing in the end. For me, personally, I’m sure life will be fine. I live among the lucky minority of humanity which has clean water, plenty to eat, a safe home, and free enterprise. I try to be grateful for these things at all times.

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