Raising Awareness Through Art

Michael Pittman is an artist from Newfoundland, Canada who works with multiple media to create images and objects that express his research, ideas and personal narratives sometimes associated with concepts around mental illness and addiction. He uses art to raise awareness and through his studies and direct experiences, he is able to create work that is engaging and incredibly intriguing for the viewer. 

Bear Cove. Ink, graphite, charcoal and acrylic on acid free rag board. 51cm x 76cm. 2015.

Bear Cove. Ink, graphite, charcoal and acrylic on acid free rag board. 51cm x 76cm. 2015.

AH: I read in a past interview that the inspiration behind your paintings is mental illness. Do you ever find it difficult to work with a topic that can sometimes be thought of as depressing?

MP: It’s not the genesis of all my work, but it has played a major role in my process in the past,   and is something that continues to inform what I do. It was difficult work to make on many   levels, but also rewarding and interesting. The source of the work was primarily the well- recorded history and philosophy of “disordered” thought and the historical diagnoses and treatment of mental illness. The images were informed by both the history of psychopathology and also from a much more personal record. Mental illness and addiction have influenced my work from a very intimate perspective. As many can attest, dealing with these issues within yourself and loved ones in an ongoing way really permeates everything you think and do -   there is no avoiding it; it is part of who you are.

AH: At what point in your career did you feel that you wanted to express this through your art?

MP: It’ s something that’s always been close to me, but I think that my academic interest was focused by reading Foucault’s "Madness and Civilization" near the end of my undergraduate studies. It remained an important topic of research for me for quite a while. Later, I also began exploring theories presented in Prinzhorn's "Artistry of the Mentally Ill" -    though the text is dated and highly problematic in many ways, I found the idea that specific psychological ailments could produce very specific patterns of  "artistic output" or "configuration" really intriguing, even if, ultimately, incorrect. There’s a lot of interesting visual material    associated with all this historical information.

Signal Fire. Ink, graphite, charcoal, and acrylic on birch panel. 122cm x 81cm. 2015

Signal Fire. Ink, graphite, charcoal, and acrylic on birch panel. 122cm x 81cm. 2015

AH: Do you feel that your work has/is raising awareness as you had hoped it would?

MP: There was a great deal of interest in the project and it led to a solo exhibition at a large public gallery, which included several bodies of work spanning over 5 years. The images and sculptural pieces were influenced by some seemingly disparate ideas that rotated around a core of personal,psychological experience. I think there was a positive response to the work because of its introspective nature. When I make images or things, I project an accumulation of experience onto a specific subject: the result is representative of the particular way that I decode the world. Though it’s often very personal, I believe it is illuminated by a commonality in the way that we all process and internalize experience.There was some really positive press about the show – I suppose it helped a little to raise some awareness regarding a subject that people still find difficult to talk about.

AH: Can you walk me through your painting process?

MP: My painting process is as reductive as it is additive: I work in many layers of fast drying materials, then carve, scrape, sand and gouge back through to expose some areas while completely obliterating others. I’ve often said that there’s a distillation process that occurs when working this way. The superfluous stuff evaporates or disappears, and what is left behind is concentrated and deliberate. I predominately use acrylic paint and a combination of drawing materials to create my images on a wooden or paper substrate. To say that each image is representative of a specific story or narrative would be misleading. The images often begin with a core of narrative and accumulate material until they become something else. I try to make images that create a narrative sense; they tell stories and also expose themselves as such. They are neither transcriptions of fact, nor tall-tales. People, places and things overlap and intertwine with one another becoming something akin to multiple exposures in a photograph. Time dissolves the division between subject and meaning for me. Layers of memories, dreams and stories are combined without priority or differentiation. It is the stuff of early childhood memories or the blurry record of subjective experience without context. Our individual world views are essentially myths that we construct based on the facts that are most accessible, if not most relevant. We build spheres of meaning around ourselves with the material that we have on hand. I borrow heavily from areas of knowledge or phenomena that I relate to on some level. I absorb the information that I accumulate through my research, and it becomes part of my visual language or vocabulary. Once the facts are released from their context, I can manipulate them freely and use them to create personal narratives that embrace the ambiguous nature of things and the uncertainty of meaning.

Quarter Sawn. Ink, graphite, charcoal, and acrylic on birch panel. 122cm x 81cm. 2015

Quarter Sawn. Ink, graphite, charcoal, and acrylic on birch panel. 122cm x 81cm. 2015

AH: Your paintings have a great deal of restraint to them. Do you ever find the restraint to be difficult?

MP: I find restraint very difficult- though it seems to be getting easier for me. I have always had a tendency to overwork my images, but lately I’ve been a little better at keeping things more immediate and knowing when to quit. The great thing about the materials that I use is that they can always be covered up (which happens quite a lot). Some of what might be perceived as restraint in my work may actually be the opposite- it’s the process of building up layers and removing what is unnecessary. I think what does remain is essential and purposeful...maybe that’s a form of restraint too. I don’t know…

Skein. Ink and acrylic on acid free rag board. 51cm x 76cm. 2015

Skein. Ink and acrylic on acid free rag board. 51cm x 76cm. 2015

AH: Did you have inspiration come to you in specific ways to expand into different mediums at certain points in your career or did you always have an overall wanting to express your ideas and concepts in more than one form?

MP: The impetus to move towards sculpture was really to try to see what would happen if I actually made the things that I was painting; and would working on them simultaneously affect the outcome of both. I found moving back and forth between mediums, on pieces that had a strong relationship to one another worked really well for me, and helped me figure out what was really going on in them. At the time I was a little (ok...a lot) preoccupied with  beds… I think actually making some helped me to solidify my ideas. It was a big transition for me, and I’m still really developing a process and language for working in sculpture.

AH: I notice that the rocking chair and bed are repeated objects used in your work, what is the significance behind them?

MP: Chairs and beds...furniture in general figure heavily in some of my work. They’re most often representative of people, or used as a means of encapsulating complex ideas into a more singular form. A few years ago, I was following a stream of research that led me on my journey from the history of mental illness to an investigation of sleep disorders: traversing bodies of knowledge in which beds figured heavily. Eventually, my interest began to turn more specifically towards the object that had appeared so frequently in my work.

Procrustean Bed #1. Steel, aluminum, casters and pneumatic actuators. Dimensions variable. 2012. Photo from “Michael Pittman: Haunted Half” Exhibition at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, St. John’s, NL, Canada.

Procrustean Bed #1. Steel, aluminum, casters and pneumatic actuators. Dimensions variable. 2012. Photo from “Michael Pittman: Haunted Half” Exhibition at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, St. John’s, NL, Canada.

No other piece of furniture carries with it such a weight of conflicted meaning as the bed. It is simultaneously functional, mystical, sexual and solemn. It is freedom and stasis: a nest and a prison. It is the threshold over which many of us enter and leave this world. In its proportions, it references our bodies. It provides regeneration, and waits quietly with us for death. Licentiousness, infirmity, vulgarity, and grace meet under its covers.

The image of the rocking chair represents a little bit of nostalgic longing, but has also been assigned a latent ominousness by local folklore (passed on to me by my mother). It can represent presence and absence and like the bed, it is an uncanny surrogate for the body.

Lies about the dead. ink, graphite, charcoal and acrylic on birch panel. 31cm x 31cm. 2015

Lies about the dead. ink, graphite, charcoal and acrylic on birch panel. 31cm x 31cm. 2015

AH: The bed sculptures are almost cage like and give this feeling of both birth and death. Are they illustrating the feeling of waking up from a nightmare or some other dreamlike state?

MP: The idea was to explore beds themselves as both physical objects and as signifiers for (sometimes) conflicting ideas (i.e. birth/death). It started out as preoccupation with the idea of a “procrustean bed” : a device from Greek mythology, employed by a bandit from Attica, to inflict suffering on unsuspecting travelers. With the offer of accommodation, Procrustes would lure victims to an iron bed that would stretch them or dismember them to fit its unscrupulously adjusted dimensions, forcing the body to fit its shifting length. The term has come to connote any “arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.” It was Procrustes’ rather macabre “one size fits all” solution, which led experimentation with pneumatic automation. and to also explore contrary ideas of hyper-specificity of function. I endeavored to create representations of beds for very specific uses, or that relate to very specific ideas- I imagined a bed only for dying, a bed for the depressed, a bed inspired by childish fears associated with sleep.

Trap-bed. Steel, casters and reclaimed Douglas fir. 142cm x 58.5cm x 142cm. 2012. Photo from “Michael Pittman: Haunted Half” Exhibition at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, St. John’s, NL, Canada.

Trap-bed. Steel, casters and reclaimed Douglas fir. 142cm x 58.5cm x 142cm. 2012. Photo from “Michael Pittman: Haunted Half” Exhibition at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, St. John’s, NL, Canada.

AH: What was the process like behind the nightlights prop projection? Did it take a series of trial and error to execute it the way you envisioned it? Had you done something similar in the past that had helped you with the execution?

MP: The projection pieces represent a lot of experimentation and trial and error- I worked with the individual elements clamped to roughly made armatures on a workbench for almost a year before I figured out what lenses and light sources worked best. The pieces look quite simple, but there are so many fine adjustments that can completely compromise the image if they’re not exactly right. I had been working on another type of rotating projection piece when I stumbled upon the idea for these latest pieces. I call all my experiments with projection, nightlights.

The Nightlights were a departure from what I had been doing, and I really hadn’t come across anything like it before. I knew roughly what I wanted the pieces to “do” and I had some idea of what I wanted them to look like. Ultimately though, the process of developing them took over and the end results are a product of their function- they look like they do because of how I need them to operate. The development process was pretty arduous and the fine-tuning was equally as time consuming. With the engineering done, however, image development became quite fun.

Pittman refers to these projection devices as Nightlights. They are handmade, multi-slide projectors, which produce simple moving pictures. 

Pittman refers to these projection devices as Nightlights. They are handmade, multi-slide projectors, which produce simple moving pictures. 

The repetitive motion in this Nightlight work is of Pittman chopping at a  frozen brook with an axe.

The repetitive motion in this Nightlight work is of Pittman chopping at a  frozen brook with an axe.

You can see more photos of the Nightlight work here

You can see more photos of the Nightlight work here

AH: Are the proto sequence projections executions of your own dreams or is the idea to make the viewer feel as if they are in a dream?

MP: The images that are featured in the sequence are mostly visual experiments with my first prototype projection device to see what sort of complexity was achievable with moving patterns in these simple devices. The Moth sequence is the only “finished” piece to come from this yet (I’ve only recently gotten back to these experiments). Very early on, I began working with images and ideas surrounding common clothes moths, phototaxis (the movement of an organism toward or away from a source of light) and light traps (devices used by entomologists to study phototaxic insects). Moth imagery had begun to appear in my work more and more over a period of about two years, having suffered through a moth infestation after acquiring some egg-laden second hand clothing. The idea of infestation and of an unwanted presence resonated with me and linked serendipitously with another element of my research.

The Moths light trap is a preview of a moving image created with a prototype of a rotating projector, based on the idea of a children's nightlight. You can read more about it here

The Moths light trap is a preview of a moving image created with a prototype of a rotating projector, based on the idea of a children's nightlight. You can read more about it here

I had been investigating spiritualism, psychical research and mediumship for much of the previous year, and found myself drawing comparisons in all things to aspects of the “paranormal”. The comparison of moths to ghosts came about quite organically when working through some text on the surface of painting.

AH: What is next for you? What future projects have you started working on?

MP: All of the projection pieces are still works in progress, and I’ve recently applied for some funding to continue to develop them. I’ve exhibited some of the pieces while others are still tucked away in the dark. I’m looking for exhibition opportunities for the existing work and will be continuing to send out more proposals over the next few months. I’ll be undertaking some new but related research later this year that I’m excited about, and I’m hoping it will turn into some new two and three- dimensional pieces. Some of the work will be destined for a solo show in Toronto in 2016.

You can learn more about Michael Pittman and his work by visiting his website www.newfoundartist.com