Will Martyr


Fine artist Will Martyr has a magnificent, huge new show at Hanover Square’s Unit London gallery. The show, titled ‘Fathoms‘ runs until 29th September and comprises of enormous circular tondos and his bold colours, dramatic lines and cheeky placements create his signature, wonderful imaginary destinations, whether it’s up mountains or poolside in a far off land. An alumni of The Slade School of Art, The New York Studio School and the Royal College of Art, he’s someone who’s star is very much on the rise.

These are big circles Will…
They’re 240cm diameter tondos – made by the same people who make Damian Hirst’s ones. To get them them in and out of my studio I had to take them apart. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare to get them here as we then have to re-stretch them when we put them together. It’s a really physical thing to do. 

How long does each one take?
The way in which the artworks are composed are taken from photographs I’ve taken myself, photographs I’ve bought and snippets of various places from magazines to create these hybrid locations. I’ve got thousands of images and to think about how to fit them all together takes about a week to understand what I want to do. Then to draw them on this scale takes about two or three days and then to actually paint them is three to four weeks. 

Did you work concurrently on them?
I tend to work on two, maybe three at the same time, depending on the scale. These ones are so large it’s mainly been limited to two. All the colours are premixed into pots and labelled so at the end you can go back in and fix all the bits that have gone wrong or any blemishes. It’s incredibly controlled. 

Why did you go for circles this time? Your last show Wanderlust was mainly square canvases.
There were a few circles in Wanderlust but I felt that with the images I was painting for that show the viewer was more from the outside, looking in and with this show you’re invited to come into the paintings a lot more and that circular format gives that much more of a womb-like embracing feel. There are much more playful elements with the works in this show as well – in Wanderlust they were far more reserved. With this there are macarons and flamingos or the utilitarian elements like the Poundland beach ball and lilo. 

Do the circles focus things a lot more?
I guess so – it also enhances any kind of perspective. The circle shoots you straight through and then you use devices that are taken from 14th/15th century painting that lead your eye and stop your eye in certain places. There are a lot of historical fine art references and tools that lead you in and around the work. It’s good because you don’t want to be shot straight through the painting, there needs to be more curio within it. With these works there are much more smaller, interesting elements and, of course, you can indulge in the flamingos or macarons. 


Wanderlust was shown just last summer, so did you go straight from that into creating this show? 
This entire body of work took about seven months. Off the back of Wanderlust there was a crazy amount of commission requests. The entry level into this show is very different – there are no small paintings. I anticipate that these pieces would go into private and corporate collections but off the back of the show there would be dozens of private commissions and then I’m looking at another solo show and group shows towards the end of 2019.

Busy, busy…
It’s great though – it’s a real privilege to work at this scale. And I think that the confidence and the money that Wanderlust gave me, along with the freedom that the gallery has given me has allowed me to make works at this scale and not to worry too much about being able to eat. 

You purposefully strip your paintings of people – do you get requests for them in the private commissions?
People always ask but they know what I do and I try and make as seductive a painting as I possibly can. They know that when they come to me, that’s what they’re going to get. If someone wants me to paint their dog then I’m not really going to go for that. As a general rule, the collectors that come through Unit London are tremendously respectful of the artist. No one’s asked me to do anything ridiculous. The quality of collectors that these guys get down are fantastic.

How did you arrive at your style?
I’ve always been interested in colour. When I was 15 or 16, the artists that I was into were people like Ellsworth Kelly who was placing colours next to each other and shapes next to each other, and all the colour theory that stems from that. Also, my father was an architect and architectural journals were all over the house, so that, as well as childhood holidays and visiting places all marries together. I guess if someone asked me the artists that really influenced me I’d say post-War American artists like Richard Diebenkorn, all the abstract expressionists, the poster culture of the vorticists, the Russian constructivists, or even the futurists. That concise way of getting an idea over using straight lines and colour. It’s that economy of gesture or line to suggest something has always excited me.

What do you make of your Hockney comparisons?
To be compared to an artist like Hockney is absolutely amazing but I think if you paint water and nice buildings you’re always going to be compared to him. Don’t forget that’s a very small section of his painting practice, although they’re the most famous. People try and use it as a stick but I think of it as a good thing. It’s as if I’ve only been painting for a couple of years, saw his show and decided to start painting swimming pools! I paint in highly saturated, seductive, luxurious environments and it’s that kind of louche living Los Angeles feel that’s incredibly seductive. If you do that then people will always make a reference to Hockney. 

You attended three different art schools - Slade School of Fine Art London, The New York Studio School, and The Royal College of Art; what did you take from each one? 
When you’re attending the Slade there are four scholarships to go anywhere in the world in your third year and I decided to go to New York Studio. It’s a life drawing school but intrinsically I was out there just to have a studio and soak up the environment. It doesn’t get better for someone with an interest in architecture to go to a city like New York. The Slade was incredible, particularly in the late ’90s, riding the back of the YBAs – everyone who was anyone went through that school. Any major artist having a show in town would come and do a talk at Slade. My cohorts were people like Lally Chetwynd, Nicky Verber, Luke Caulfield – it was an immensely exciting, yet intimidating, place to be because you knew that the people you were at art school with were destined to do big things. New York was fantastic and then when I was looking for somewhere to do a Masters I came back because I was in love with my now wife. I got offered places in New York, the Royal Academy, Royal College and The Slade and I decided to go with the Royal College where my contemporaries really drove me on. 

Will Martyr, ‘Fathoms’ is at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square until 29th September

Interview: Josh Jones
Photo: Tom Medwell


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