Interview with Scott Listfield for “1984”

Scott Listfield’s latest body of work of hyper-realistic oil painting inspired by Orwell’s 1984 and his own childhood memories of the 80’s kick off Thinkspace’s 2018 project room. The single astronaut who explores various landscape eliciting self-reflection from the viewer takes a time jump to a world once familiar and distant, with an unsettling familiarity. Our interview with Scott Listfield dives deeper into the inspiration behind the show, those who have influenced his artistic growth, and posthumous collaboration.

Opening reception Saturday, January 6th from 6 pm – 9 pm.

SH: How long have you been working on this latest body of work? What themes were you exploring?
SL: Well, I’ve been painting astronauts since 1999 which, considering how fast things move these days, is basically the dawn of time. I’ve been thinking about this particular series, though, for probably about a year now. In January 0f 2017, the George Orwell novel 1984 jumped to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, which seemed a bit curious to me, since it was written in 1949 and all. So I’d be thinking about doing a set of paintings about what 1984 meant in 2017, which touched on themes from the book, referenced the wave of nostalgia for the 80’s that we always seem to be in, pulled from memories I had as a kid growing up in the 80’s, but also maybe talked about the world we’re living in today. That’s already kind of a lot to throw into one group of paintings, so of course, I decided to also add in some references to popular music, a recurring Lamborghini Countach, and a whole hell of a lot of stripes. And it probably took me about 3-4 months to finish all the work.

SH: What is your favorite band, movie, and TV show from the 80’s?
SL: For those of you too young to remember the 80’s, it was pretty much exactly like Stranger Things. We all had BMX bikes, bowl cuts, and there was an inter-dimensional demon in our hometowns that we had to destroy. Just like Bruce Springsteen used to sing about. Anyhow, if I’m going to pick my favorites from that era, I feel like I have to choose the things that were most important to me then. Which means you’re getting 8-year-old Scott’s favorites, not necessarily the things that still resonate with me most today. Although, now that I think about it, maybe they’re the same list.

Band: Michael Jackson. Movie: Return of the Jedi. TV Show: Transformers (the cartoon, obviously).

SH: What is your favorite part of the creative process? What is your least favorite part?
SL: My favorite part is making paintings. My least favorite part is not making paintings.

SH: When painting are you listening to music or podcasts? Can you share what you were listening to while developing this body of work?
SL: I used to listen to music while in the studio, but as I’ve gotten older, and increasingly bewildered by young people’s tastes in music, I find myself listening to more podcasts. But I do still listen to a fair bit of music while I’m painting, and I had new albums by Cut Copy, Action Bronson, Yellow Days, LCD Soundsystem, and King Krule in circulation in the studio, alongside some 80’s hits by Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and Hall and Oates, which put me in the proper 1984 type of mood. As for podcasts, I listen to The Jealous Curator’s “Art For Your Ear,” one of my favorite art podcasts, and “Beyond Yacht Rock,” a podcast about yacht rock and other made up genres of music, by the guys who first coined the term, among others.

SH: Who has been one of the most influential people in your artistic development? Have they shared any advice with you other artists can apply to their work or journey?
SL: Oh jeez, I know I’m supposed to name a teacher or a mentor or something, and then fill everybody in on the most profound thing they ever said, which still resonates with me years later. But I don’t have a figure like that in my life, or at least not exactly. For a brief time in college, I became very good friends with a guy who was a couple years older than me and who had, unlike me at the time, lived a little. He had seen some things. Truthfully, he wasn’t exactly a great artist, but he was an extremely smart guy, and he told me a bunch of things I’m still unpacking years later. His name was Chris Ostoj, and unfortunately, he died young, which is sadly the way a lot of the most important people go. He used to look at my paintings and tell me, very seriously, to “Be more punk rock.” At the time, I’ll admit I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but it certainly seemed pretty bad ass, so I wrote it on my studio wall and repeated it to myself every now and again. After a while, I think I got it. And then I kind of stopped getting it. But hey, do with it what you will.

A little later on in my life, when I first started painting astronauts, I met my wife. She was my girlfriend at the time, of course, which is how that works, usually. She had studied illustration in school, while I had studied fine arts. Those two things are taught very differently, as it turns out. She looked at what I was doing, which involved essentially zero prep work and zero research and zero patience and 100% fucking around, and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was stupid. And she was right. I learned to stop wasting time and get fucking serious about things.

Later still I met my friend Wes. It was at a time when I was making paintings of astronauts largely to throw in the back of a closet or perhaps to hang exclusively in my own home. Let’s just say that there was not exactly a lot of demand for my work back then. I was working a day job and it was hard to carve out the time to keep making paintings that almost nobody cared about. Every artist reaches this point, some many times, where they start thinking about hanging it up. Is it worth the time and the effort? Do I still like doing this enough to keep plugging away at it, even though it might never lead anywhere? I was at that point. My friend Wes would come over to my house, get kinda drunk, blunder into my studio, and proceed to tell me that he thought my paintings were better than the ones he had seen in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He was wrong of course, and when he’d get into VERY DRUNK territory he had trouble pronouncing “Hermitage.” But at a time in my life that I needed someone to believe in my art, he was there.

SH: In the few paintings we’ve seen so far, the astronaut doesn’t seem to be as isolated as previous works. Was this a conscious choice or only our perception?
SL: Well, there are certainly more people in these paintings, although they mostly appear in the form of large billboards with the faces of Madonna and Lionel Ritchie and Huey Lewis on them. I also included, I think for the first time, a secondary recurring character – the mysterious Lamborghini Countach which appears in a number of the paintings from this show. But you never see who’s driving the car, and it’s not clear if they’re somehow aligned with our protagonist, or just lingering maliciously in the background. These also all take place in a world that feels more artificial than my normal paintings. Pink and purple skies stripes raining down from above. I don’t know, but I actually feel like the astronaut might be even more isolated in these than my previous works.

SH: Who would you want to collaborate with, dead or alive? The person can be in any area of the arts; film, dance, music, etc.
SL: Wow, I can choose a dead person? Like, I’ll take dead Einstein? Oh wait, you said arts. Huh. To be honest, I don’t do a lot of collaborating, because I’m one of those creative loner types. When I do, on occasion, though, I prefer to work with someone I consider a peer. Because the work has to make sense together, right? And if I’m being honest, I would have trouble working with someone a lot more famous than me, or a lot more dead than me, or especially both. Like if I worked with zombie Picasso and the entire art world was super excited he had come back from the dead but then they were also all like “Uh, why is zombie Picasso working with this guy who paints astronauts? Was zombie Matisse available? Or living Jeff Koons at least?”

Anyhow, let’s go with Stanley Kubrick. Or Pharell. Can I say both? Wait, David Attenborough. Final answer.

SH: When not in the studio, what would an ideal day look like?
SL: I mean, I like to be in the studio and, like a lot of artists, I tend to get a bit itchy when I’m not. But I also like to travel, and seeing new things and places and people do inspire me, both personally and artistically. So I’d say, flying off to someplace warm, exploring a city I know only a little bit, and grabbing an ice cream cone with my wife. Or, you know, fighting ninjas. One or the other.

SH: What do you think the role of art / the artist is in society?
SL: Well, that’s a big question. I hate to be simplistic, but isn’t our role to make some art? Do people ask accountants “What do you think the role of accounting is in society?” What about baristas, or systems analysts, or Uber drivers? Actually, maybe they do. But I feel like artists, more so than most, are always questioning our place in the world. And why is that? Do we need to play a role in society, or can we just, you know, make some art? And who am I to explain in one or two really long run on sentences what role all the other artists in the world should be playing?

I’m just a guy who paints astronauts. Sometimes an astronaut with a cool car in the background. Sometimes an astronaut with like, oh shit, is that Hall and Oates? And sometimes an astronaut, and somebody looking at it stops for a moment, in the middle of everything else that is going on right now in their life, and maybe or maybe not there’s something in that painting that makes them think about the world we’re all living in together just a tiny bit different. And they feel a little more connected to something, or someone, or the things I’m saying, or trying to say, in my paintings resonates with them, in some small or large way. And maybe they think about buying it, and taking it home with them, to live with, forever and ever. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they just smile. Or maybe they ignore it and scroll to the next thing in their Instagram feed. And hey, that’s fine. I’m just making some paintings of astronauts. I hope some people like them.

So yeah. I’m answering this question in the most roundabout way possible. Of course, we have a role to play. But I’m not the one who says what it is. That’s for each of us to figure out on our own.

SH: Kicking off the new year with an exhibition is a great way to start 2018! What are your artistic plans for the rest of the year?
SL: So I am very excited to be kicking off 2018 with a show of my work that feels to me like it’s pushing things forward a bit. It’s kind of dark in tone but exceptionally bright in color. It’s politically timely but set in the 80’s. Working on these paintings did feel like the next step for me, and I’m excited to see how it shapes my paintings coming up. I’m sure I’ll spend 2018 painting more astronauts. I’ll be doing a little something with Spoke in San Francisco in June, and a show with the very talented painter Josie Morway at Antler Gallery in Portland in the fall.