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Interview with Martin Grover

Martin Grover lives and paints in South East London, working from a studio in West Norwood for over 20 years. As a painter and printmaker, his work combines scenes from every day life with elements of the surreal and humour.

How did your interest in painting begin?

I’ve always enjoyed drawing and painting. I remember taking myself up to my room as a child and losing myself in work. I’ve continued that enjoyment and interest throughout school, Trent Polytechnic, the Royal Academy Schools and beyond.

How would you describe your work?

My paintings and prints in style are quite realistic, not photographic but they can be intensely detailed. It’s about taking the familiar and giving it a little twist. My work over the years has developed into a few distinct strands. I paint traditional landscapes or cityscapes, a lot of these paintings are based around Brockwell Park and West Norwood. For the last 15 years I have also been painting old vinyl singles, I call them my flat still lives. Originally they were painted life size but after a few years my faltering eyesight and a wish to give them more impact led to me enlarging the paintings to 1 metre square. So they have become more of a celebration of the golden age of the 7” single whilst simultaneously lamenting its demise.

My screen prints incorporate these landscape and record influences but I also create prints that use more text, have a bit more of a pop art influence and are more humorous, wistful, and playful. Such as the ‘Panic and Give Up’ screen print my little antidote to the ‘Keep Calm…’ epidemic.

Does where you live have an influence on your work?

West Norwood and Brixton continue to be fertile sources of inspiration. I’ve had a studio in West Norwood for 20 years now so I’m always walking around the area, making mental notes and doing drawings. Brockwell Park is important influence because that was where I took my children when they were young and where I walk the dog now. The more time I spent in the park more I fell in love with it. At certain times and in certain areas you feel are in the countryside while other aspects offer majestic and sweeping views of London.

One of my continuing series of paintings uses local scenes as a backdrop in which to place portraits of some of my favourite singers. They roam South London streets and Brockwell Park singing their songs of love, deep soul, regret and redemption. This series began with a reported sighting of Barry White outside Brixton Town Hall (this was at a time when a lot of the old soul acts were playing at Ceaser’s in Streatham). I loved that piece of hearsay and I conjured up a painting of Barry waiting to cross Acre Lane. Subsequent paintings have him in Brockwell Park taking a well-deserved rest. Dubious or not this little anecdote has led to an ongoing list of paintings and prints that includes Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Billy Stewart, Lamont Dozier, Jerry Butler, Rance Allen, Tyrone Davis, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Irma Thomas, Hank Williams and Al Green.

Your paintings are like scenes from a narrative. Do you know how these stories unfold?

My sources and inspirations are simple. Consisting of childhood recollections, minor street scenes, small news items, poetry, short stories, radio anecdotes, old 45’s, lost toys, bus stops, sheds and shelters. All these things have an inherent narrative some that can be fully realised in a painting while others are left hanging, the opening sentence to a story but no more, drawing you in but leaving a melancholic or unsettling ambiguity. Over the years, I’ve based a few paintings on John Betjeman poems so they have a distinct narrative, a beginning and an end if you like. Other paintings have no narrative to begin with, just an idea or an image, both the viewer and myself are left guessing as to what has already occurred or what may be about to happen.

Can you give me an example of how you have illustrated stories you might have read or heard in the news?

The screen print and painting ‘Peace River Story’ is an example of how I like to illustrate stories, songs, books or poems. This particular piece is based on a little newspaper story that teetered on the edge of tragedy. A three year old boy was camping with his parents by the mighty Peace River in British Columbia. He awoke early one morning before his parents and promptly drove his electric car into the river and to his delight was swiftly carried away downriver. He drifted for more than four hours before coming to rest in some shallows many miles away, totally oblivious to the frenzied and frantic search that had been undertaken and the danger he had been in. He suffered mild hypothermia and a barrage of local press interest. The painting uses the simple image of the drifting car, vulnerable in this vast wilderness. It has a slightly eerie quality and it’s a good example of how the less we know about the source of the narrative the better.

What kind of mood are you trying to evoke in your landscapes?

I always think of them as being quite melancholic. I think one of my default settings is melancholy but then again I like comedy and humour so sometimes the paintings and prints are distinctly one or another and at other times they are a strange combination of the two.

What is your process of working?

With the record paintings I treat them like still lives, so I pin them on the wall and paint them directly, top lighting them and scaling up the larger scale paintings.

For the landscapes I go out and do drawings, take photographs. I work from these and sometimes make things up. I like the accidental, things that happen through that process can be quite thrilling, rather than to try and make it as accurate and realistic as possible.

I don’t consider myself a natural artist, I’m a great believer in trying to work every day, you can’t wait around for inspiration, I get really inspired when I have made something and even though it’s wrong I can see where to take it. Doing observational drawings or sketches are very important in my process. It doesn’t sound very bohemian or artistic but I have to treat the creative process like a job.

How long do your paintings take to make?

The records can take anything from 10 days to a month. The larger landscapes evolve over a longer period and take up to three months. It’s important to be able to step away from them from time to time and that is where screen printing has been a real blessing, it gives me the opportunity to finish a piece of work relatively quickly and to try out different ideas. Printmaking is more of a process and sometimes it’s good to have that, a beginning and an end. The paintings can be so open ended, not so linear and are never really finished…..

What artists do you like looking at?

Some of the artists I like are Edward Hopper, Stanley Spencer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Edward Gorey, Ben Shahn and Laura Knight. The record theme is more influenced by pop art and a lot of the prints I do use bits of text, reference adverts or book illustration.

Music is a very important part of your life…

At the secondary school I went to, if you were interested in art, the teachers were happy to let you get on with whatever you wanted to do as they had to spend most of their time in preventing a mini riot. I used to copy album covers. I was into rock and progressive music. That was all about album covers so that was a big influence growing up. I need to have music on in the studio when I’m working. .

I was commissioned to paint some old singles for a client, he wanted a trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) effect that he had seen me do with other still lives, most notably my shirt and tie paintings. He was really pleased with the results and I was quite inspired by doing them. I’ve been collecting singles for a long time now so I just carried on painting from my own collection. I tend to choose ones which have iconic graphic designs covers where the paper is quite worn. I can get quite excited by little tears and creases and the way the paper has discoloured and become slightly transparent.

Is it important that you like the music?

It helps but I didn’t want it to be about what I thought was good music because everyone has their own opinion. I didn’t want it to be that subjective. It’s as much about celebrating the idea of vinyl especially the 45 and how important it was for a lot of us growing up. And it’s making a bit of a comeback, the CD was supposed to be the future but it’s been shown up to be the bearer of false promise, vinyl is where the soul is.

How did the bus stop paintings come about?

The bus stops prints and 3D pieces are another strand of my work. I was having an exhibition and I had the idea of using the London bus stop template as an invite for the show. Then I tried a little screen print which was quite good but I thought it could be improved and I’ve been trying to perfect it ever since.

Where does the text come?

Some of the text comes from song and book titles ‘Stop In The Name of Love’ or ‘Hangover Square for example. Others are just little puns or turns of phrases that I think will work. The most popular piece of text I have used is known as the ‘Bus Driver’s Prayer’. I always thought this was written by Ian Dury because I’d heard it on one of his albums and it is definitely something that fits his unique style. It turns out to be an anonymous poem which he slightly adapted. It’s an ode to London districts and roads but done in the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s brilliant and I wish I had written it because it is perfect. Bus stops tell you where you are, where you are heading towards and the various places you will be going through to get there. I like the idea of the bus stop representing a life journey, real as well as imaginary.

How important is humour in your work?

Humour is important. It allows me to go off at a tangent, offering respite from the sometimes stressful/tedious process of working on large detailed and melancholic canvases, which can take months to complete.

The bus stop series of prints and sculptures, ‘Life in the Bus Lane’ is a good example of this. It has developed over the last 13 years, alongside my more traditional landscape and cityscape paintings. As previously mentioned the idea was to use the London bus stop as template for an exhibition invite. Doing it as a limited edition print I started to think about the rich variety of poetic destinations and street names London has to offer, while also beginning to make up a few of my own. The prints eventually turned into 3D pieces as well and they have enabled me to mix elements of melancholy with wry and whimsical humour, incorporating book, poem and song titles as well as various turns of phrase, proverbs etc. For the bus numbers I substitute various states of mind, internal dialogues or general observations. Destinations are changed to reflect ambitions or personal dilemmas; places to avoid or more importantly places to aspire to, reflecting the various journeys we undertake in our minds as well as in reality. Being a life-long bus user I know that they are perfect places to mull over life’s trials and tribulations, on buses we can daydream, read, sightsee, be a bystander or become part of the tumult and hubbub, the ebb and the flow of London life.

‘From Anger Lane to Healing Common’ is one such print. This stop includes the ’Bus of Sighs’, ‘Trouble Bus’, ‘Bus of Un-rung Bells’, ‘Also-rans Bus’ as well as the more tender ‘Bus of First Loves’ and ‘Bus That Brings Me Back To You’….

What do you like about painting?

I love the process of painting of being able to transform this acrylic liquid into something that resembles a real thing, I still get a big kick out of that. At school I was always being told that I would be suited to graphic art. Even though I bucked expectations and chose the much less profitable Fine Art route my style has remained graphic. I like creating images. With the screen prints, I don’t use any photographic stencils, everything is hand painted on to the screen and I have enjoyed doing all the lettering. It suits me that a very simple process can become quite complex with the overlaying colours and the creation of different tones. I like the independence to it. I’m not reliant on lots of chemicals or lots of equipment. You just adapt to a way of working, every artist is looking for their own way of doing things. The way I do my screen prints, it’s not unique but they have a look and feel that makes them fairly original.

How long have you been doing Artists’ Open House and what do you like about doing it?

This will be the fifth year I’ve taken part in Artist’s Open House. The boundary changed a few years ago to include residents and studios in SE27, I’d always enjoyed doing Open House/Studios in the past. Also it allows the artists here at Carlew House to be a bit more sociable with one another, as we are normally quite solitary creatures or we operate on different time patterns. AOH is incredibly well organised and is a much anticipated date in the cultural calendar. It has become such a large event and there is a really high standard and variety of work so it is an honour to be part of it. It’s a great way to meet people and clients. The informality of the event is quite refreshing. The people I have met through doing it are really enthusiastic and make a great effort to plan their routes, targeting certain areas over a number of years. Gallery shows are fine and necessary but I feel more in control and at home here in my studio. People are really interested in seeing how and where artists operate.

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