Chances are fairly high that even in 1994, at the dawn of the Internet, people still had an image of the not-too-distant future of 2017 that’s, well, super futuristic. Raised by Star Wars and a shitload of cartoons, the future looked rather sexy and savvy, especially after the terrors of the cold war seemingly have been outpaced once and for all. Peeps were looking forward to having robot butlers and visiting Mars with the family. They liked the idea of bringing their kids to school via the latest flying car and fooling around with cloned dinosaurs while rocking a new kind of Esperanto. In actuality though we’ve never been closer to a bleak 1984 than in 2017. And maybe that’s exactly why the lonely astronaut in Scott Listfield’s paintings has this kind of sad aura around him as he explores the present, trying to blend into a world that continues to disappoint him.
It would be foolish to state though that the adventures of Listfield’s protagonist are dead serious ones, since the Somerville-residing artist integrates enough corporate, political and pop cultural references into his images to make you grin for days, regardless of how gloomy the times might be. At the moment he’s busy preparing for three gallery shows this year - in Los Angeles, Montreal and Chicago - but still he somehow managed to find a few minutes for having a quick chit-chat with Lodown.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that I always wanted to be an artist. Describing it as a conscious decision makes it sound like I took a long look at some spreadsheets, maybe a pie chart or two, and was like “Yup, going into art seems like the logical thing to do.” And I certainly wouldn't call it an accident either. I didn't trip and fall into an open manhole cover and land on a still life set up, an easel, and some Cadmium Red Light. I think, like most people, it started for me as an interest in art – I liked to doodle a lot in high school. In college it grew into more of a passion. And after school it slowly, in fits and starts, became something of a career. There were probably a thousand different inflection points along the way where it could have gone one way or another, but through stubbornness, persistence, and a lot of dumb luck, somehow here I am.“
Would you say that corporate logos and iconic pop culture figures are predominantly inherent in the American DNA?
I don't think it's in our DNA, but I do think it's a core part of who we are. We were brought up going to McDonalds, watching Saturday morning cartoons, playing with legos, and now pressing the skip button on Youtube ads. Corporate logos are the contemporary landscape. You drive down the street and pull up to a light, and there's a Starbuck's, a Burger King, a supermarket, and maybe a Home Depot or an Old Navy. You drive to the next light and there's a Starbuck's, a Burger King, a supermarket, and maybe a Home Depot or an Old Navy. For me, this collection of colors and signs is like looking at a forest or the mountains. It's where I grew up. I'm very aware now that I'm being advertised to, but there's still something homey about the McDonald's logo that brings back cherished memories of childhood and makes me want to curl up with a box of fries, even though I haven't been to a McDonald's in years.
In the beginning, facial features were clearly visible under the helmet of your trademark protagonist - what made you decide to turn him into a faceless/anonymous character over the years? Was there a kind of narrative involved when you first started to draw him?
The very first astronaut paintings I made came out of years of painting self portraits, and so it was natural to just kinda paint a face in there. But I realized pretty quickly, after only a handful of paintings, that it made much more sense to obscure the face of the astronaut. I didn't want people looking at these paintings and thinking “Oh hey, a white guy.” or “Is that supposed to be John Glenn or something?” or “That looks kind of like Matt Damon.” I wanted the figure of the astronaut to be as blank and open as possible. He (or she) is just an explorer, and I wanted people looking at my paintings to easily slide themselves into his shoes (or moon boots I guess). I didn't want a specific person in there, and I didn't want to project any emotions onto it either. And so, ever since astronaut number, I don't know, 6 or 7 probably, I've painted them with a dark face mask.
The many references to the heydays of so-called Britpop... is this a reference to the times you lived abroad?
Ha! My Britpop series is about 8 or 9 paintings I made last year for my first solo show in London, at StolenSpace Gallery. Back when I was in college – I'm dating myself here – it was the late 90s and I was an American boy who was super into British music and culture. Blur, Oasis, Spice Girls, Trainspotting, NME magazine. This was the same time I was starting to paint, and the two things became kind of tangled and combined in my mind. It was right around this time that I did travel abroad on my own for the first time, living in Europe (mostly Italy) for about 5 months at the height of Spice Girls mania, which made it all feel even more important, and symbolic to that time in my life. But I never really did anything with it, art-wise, until twenty years later when this opportunity popped up for me in London. I decided that I wanted to make a series of paintings that were about that time in my life, exploring a London that was either trapped in 1996, where Brit pop still ruled, or maybe an alternative 2016, where time had stood still, and Brit pop also still ruled. Each piece has a band poster in it somewhere, representing all my favorite British bands of the time. In a lot of ways, it brought me back to my earliest days of painting, and it was a really fun project to work on. I even got back into listening to some of that music for the first time in a long while. I think it's held up pretty well.
How does it personally feel for you to live in a reality officially based on alternative facts these days? Did your life somehow change after Jan 20, 2017?
Ugh. It feels pretty terrible, frankly. Look, my work is obviously influenced by science fiction movies and books, like 1984, or Terminator 2, which generally depict a fairly bleak future. I try to keep my work a bit mixed though, so there's some optimism in there with the post-apocalyptic visions. But there's been a lot of talk lately about the end of the world, and 1984 (originally published way back in 1949) just crashed Amazon's bestseller list. I've had a few people come up and tell me that with all this focus on the end of things, it must be great for my work! Um, hooray? I've never felt so unhappy to be part of the zeitgeist.
I don't want to get too much into politics here, but like a lot of other artists (and non-artists) it feels like we're suddenly living in a very dark timeline. I'm trying not to let it get me too down though, and I've been very inspired by all the movements and marches springing up both here in America, and abroad, in order to protest what seems to be a clear rise, worldwide, in authoritarianism. I've been very focussed in recent years on building an audience for my work and trying to reach as many people as I can. This past November, when the election happened, I decided that my goal for 2017 was going to be to try to do more good with my work, to try to speak more directly to that audience about issues I feel are important. To donate time and money and my message to causes I care about. I was actually a bit nervous about it at first, but I've done some paintings which are much more overtly political than anything I had done previously. I'm really pleasantly surprised with how they've been received, though, and it feels more important to me than ever that art should have a voice.
So, as I mentioned, I’m trying to find ways to do a little more with my work. I've got a few limited edition prints coming out that will, in part, be helping to support charities I believe in. And I'd like to make more work this year that focusses on issues of climate change, endangered species, personal freedoms, and other things I consider important but which my government seems to have either outright abandoned, or is actively working against. It's easy to think, well, what good will it do? But it seems like everyone I know is trying to chip in at least a little bit. And if we all do that? I think that gets us somewhere.