Where art & music collide | Q&A with Martin Grover
Acclaimed painter-printmaker Martin Grover returns to For Arts Sake this autumn for his second major solo show, Illustrated Songs & Other Work. He tells us about his lifelong obsession with vinyl, from Ugly Duckling to the elusive Etta James.
Tell us about the title of your show, ‘Illustrated Songs & Other Work’ – what we can expect?
The Illustrated Songs bit mainly refers to my still life paintings of old vinyl singles in their original paper sleeves. More recently I’ve embarked on a small series of paintings and prints that try to illustrate some of the records, especially songs with a striking narrative and strong visual element. So for the show I’ve chosen The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, Debris by Faces and Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. And the Other Work is really a bit of a catch-all phrase that refers to a mix of screenprints and a few paintings – some Motown record prints, landscapes, my bus stop-related pieces and more whimsical stuff such as the Procrastination Club series.
What sparked your love of vinyl?
I can’t remember an exact time, but it’s been a long relationship. Records were such a big part of my childhood. From the age of three or four I remember having albums like Family Favourites with songs like The Runaway Train, My Grandfather’s Clock, I Know An Old Lady and Ugly Duckling – and if my memory is correct they were sung by Jon Pertwee (aka Doctor Who!).
Do you recall the first record you ever bought?
My first single recollection is slightly muddied by the fact we were given a lot of ex-jukebox singles by a family friend before I actually started buying records. I made very crude middles for them out of balsa wood and sellotape! The first single I remember actually buying with my own money was Beach Baby by First Class – a not very memorable Beach Boys parody. Not the coolest of starts. But I do remember having the single In the Ghetto by Elvis Presley and being very moved by it. Looking back, I think my melancholic disposition was borne out of hearing that song. It impressed upon me the emotion that a good song can evoke, even if you’re too young to actually know what it’s about.
Are you still a collector? Is there one that trumps the rest?
I do still collect vinyl and I treasure lots of them for all sorts of reasons. Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood is very special to me.
Any that you’d still love to get your hands on?
The Carstairs’ It Really Hurts Me Girl and Etta James’ Seven Day Fool are a couple of singles I would really like to own…
How would you define your music taste – and what shaped it?
My musical taste is mostly defined by ’60 and ’70s soul, and quite a bit of country, bluegrass, Americana, bits of folk… but basically I am willing to listen to lots of different genres. Growing up I was more into Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Neil Young, The Who, Van Morrison… At first this was influenced by my older brother, then later by what friends at school were listening to. When I was at Trent Polytechnic in the early ’80s I was introduced to Northern Soul by my good friend [printmaker] Rob Ryan. I found the emotional impact of the music quite exhilarating – and still do. Also, I found that I really liked dancing – always a tricky manoeuvre to bands like Genesis!
Your website quotes a snippet of a school report that says how much pleasure you derived from art – has that always been the case? What sort of artworks did you create as a child?
Yes, I always did find solace in my art and painting. The artworks I remember from primary school were your usual boats, trains, planes and cars, with a bit of football and a few animals thrown in. At secondary school I was more influenced by album cover art than by anything.
Did you always intend to pursue a career as an artist?
Not really, my career in art has been slightly shambolic and chaotic and has only rather belatedly been pursued with any sense of direction or purpose. I’ve always had a good work ethic but, like a lot of artists, no real business acumen or ambition other than to carry on regardless. I was at art school at a time when it was almost frowned upon to think about a career. At secondary school it was just about the only thing I was interested in or was good at – all I could think of to suggest to my careers advisor as a second choice if the art schools rejected me was to work in a bank!
How did you come to printmaking?
I did some primitive form of screenprinting at secondary school. It didn’t put me off but it didn’t light my fire either. It wasn’t until my degree course at Trent Poly that I was taught basic screenprinting technique, and then it was the only print medium I really took to. Even back then I never really got into the photo stencil process; I much preferred creating my artwork by hand on the screen, using simple block out and painting methods in conjunction with paper stencils. I carried on screenprinting during my postgrad studies but then it went into hiatus when I left, and I moved on to mainly exhibiting large detailed and illustrative paintings on canvas. It wasn’t until 2001 when I started up again. I built a small screenprinting bed in my studio and a good friend gave me Screenprinting: The Complete Water-Based System by Robert Adam and Carol Robertson – I haven’t looked back.
You move seamlessly between painting and printmaking – do you favour one over the other?
I have no favourite: they’re two sides of the same coin, each feeding the other. I like the formality of the screenprinting process. You have to plan a bit more, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. If it does or doesn’t work then you just start another print. The paintings, on the other hand, are often long, meandering and time consuming affairs: they have a beginning but the end is always elusive. From early on I felt the paintings were more serious and melancholic in tone. The screenprints were a little light relief and afforded me the chance to be more whimsical and playful. That’s still true and important these days. Ironically, I’ve managed to find a way to produce highly detailed and multi-coloured prints that are more akin to the paintings I was temporarily trying to relieve myself from. And, vitally, the screenprints allowed me to offer original artworks at a more affordable price, which has been of paramount importance in making my artwork a career.
What was your first big break?
The first breaks I had were when my painting The Wait was selected for the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition in 1989, and then in 1993 my painting Two Slightly Anxious Sisters was picked and this time I was awarded a runner up prize to the overall prize winner, Peter Doig! I’m still waiting for my next big break.
You say you got interested in album cover art as a teenager – is that when you started on the path to the works you produce today?
I’ve always used music as an inspiration for my art and, yes, as a teenager I copied album covers on to my bedroom wall and often did portraits of my favourite artists – the likes of Neil Young and Robert Plant. Then years later, in 2002, I was commissioned to paint four singles in a trompe l’oeil manner. It turned out to be the start of a series that continues today…
Where does the process of illustrating a song lyric begin?
The songs I choose are very descriptive so interpreting them is relatively easy, but it’s trying to distil the emotion of the song into one image that’s key. I create an image in my mind, then go about trying to replicate it on the canvas, sometimes by doing preparatory drawings or using old photographs, or sometimes just making things up. The songs all have an element of loss and an inherent sadness to them, which has often been the default setting of much of my work over the years.
Talk us through your studio life – do you play music while you work? How long can a piece take to complete?
The work is all done in my studio in West Norwood, and I love listening to the radio and music while I work. I may well do a little dancing if the track is right and the mood takes me – I find silence rather disturbing. Right now the favourites are Nashville Skyline and Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, and Stand in For Love, a soul compilation on Kent Records, but it changes week to week. Screenprints can take anything from one day to two weeks, and paintings generally anything from a few days to a few months.
Would you say your work has changed direction in recent years?
Over the years I think my work has diversified into four strands. There are the record paintings, the bus stops – prints and sculptures – the large landscape paintings and the more wry and whimsical prints typified by the Procrastination Club series. People often find it difficult to reconcile that these are all the work of one artist. While it’s sometimes difficult to keep these different threads going, I love them all and can’t imagine giving any up in the near future. It’s more likely that a completely new strand will appear or one of them will mutate into something different.
The ‘other’ works are brilliantly wry paeans to urban life – bus stops and shop fronts with your thoughts and daydreams writ large. Do the words occur to you as you create, or do you work it all out carefully in advance?
Sometimes the words come while I’m on a bus. Generally, ideas and phrases will occur when I’m doing other things, like trying to get to sleep or doing the washing up, so I’m constantly jotting things down for future use. I’m a bit of a magpie so I’ll often incorporate song, book or other titles and common phrases into my work. Like a lot of art, you can try to work things out beforehand, but often the best resolutions and ideas will present themselves when you actually start work and something unplanned but perfect occurs.
Martin Grover, ‘Illustrated Songs & Other Work’, For Arts Sake, free entry, September 22- October 15 2017, 45 Bond Street, Ealing W5 5AS, Mon-Fri 10am-5.30pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 12-5pm, martingrover.com
Interview: Alexa Baracaia