2010: A Space Odyssey (& Studio Visit) with Scott Listfield

BOOM, 2010 | Oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

Scott Listfield wants to know where the people on the Death Star buy their groceries. The Boston-based artist had some pretty high expectations for the future when he was younger, not unlike Stanley Kubrick's imagined explorers of deep space and their all-knowing computers. But unfortunately, as we've come to discover, Kubrick's 2001 was not the 2001 we came to understand.

Featured in editions #56 and #74 of New American Paintings, Listfield creates paintings that place the sci-fi protagonist within the mundane existence of day-to-day life in the real 21st-century (with Dunkin Donuts and Burger King in tow). I visited the artist at his Porter Square studio this week to talk Kubrick and Star Wars.  —Evan J. Garza

EJG: So I think the most obvious question is: Why the astronaut?
I graduated college 12 years ago, in a remote part of New Hampshire… and I was a little bit secluded from popular culture for four years, and then I spent a little time traveling. I went to Italy for a while, I went to Australia for a while, and then I moved to Boston. I got a totally mundane job and I started taking the bus and [doing] all these mundane “adult” things. I was living in a tiny studio apartment in JP, and I’d been thinking about these paintings that I wanted to do… I sort of thought of them as little narratives or short stories, dealing with culture shock coming back to America and dealing with billboards and a Starbucks on every block. And I wanted a protagonist who would appear in each one of these, but I didn’t want to paint myself into them.

Around this time, I watched 2001: A Space Oddysey, the Stanley Kubrick film, for the first time and it occurred to me that it was almost the real 2001, and [the film’s depiction] seemed comically ludicrous of what 2001 might be. But on the flip side, I found other things, like there were no Burger Kings [in the film], the computer they were using was a big red dot—things about the future that were just not real.

(studio shot) The Parking Ticket, 2010 | Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

It occurred to me then that I wanted to take the astronaut from the fake 2001 and put him in the real 2001 and have him be my explorer-slash-anthropologist, and he could be sort of like a blank vehicle that I could use to observe the world.

EJG: Recently you’ve been using some Star Wars characters.
Yeah, R2D2.

EJG: So, why Star Wars characters?
The paintings I make are very much about the future and my childhood. Growing up in the '80s, I watched a lot of science fiction cartoons and [read] comic books, and Star Wars is for [my generation] very important. So my paintings are all about that unrealized future. I wanted a robot best friend that would walk around with me. To me, Star Wars is like the movie that sort of represented my entire childhood. And I try not to go to the Star Wars well too often—I don’t want to be the guy that always uses Star Wars references. If I want a little pop culture zing, there’s nothing that resonates like a Star Wars reference.

EJG: Yeah, and I think that the Star Wars characters kind of exist in that fictional future-time that the 2001 astronaut also does.
Yeah. I spent a lot of time, when I first started these paintings, thinking, “Is there a supermarket on the Death Star? They’ve gotta shop for groceries, right?” The very first Star Wars reference I ever did was Chewbacca running through Cloud City, and he stumbles on a Minimalist art show. There’s like a Donald Judd on the wall, and a Richard Serra sculpture, and it occurred to me—do they look at art in Cloud City?

At the Gallery, 2009 | Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

EJG: How do you decide on the compositions themselves? Like the Shepard Fairey one for example.
I first started using Google images to search for references because a lot of the things I wanted to look at don’t exist in everyday life… I work as a graphic designer, and finally one day I realized that I was printing all these things out, and I have Photoshop on my computer. And I’m collaging them by drawing them.  So one day it clicked, what if I collage these in Photoshop.

So, what I do now is I’ll take some photos myself or find images, and I make a Photoshop collage out of them. That way I can be very particular, and my anal design side can move things over a few inches and  I can feel really satisfied with how they look, and then I use that as the drawing I work from.

EJG: You can’t look at these without acknowledging that there’s a great deal of detail in each, the compositions are really held really tightly to direct photorealism. Have you always worked this way?
No, not at all, it’s been an interesting progression. I [started] with these very Expressionistic self-portraits that were very gestural, so the first astronaut paintings had this very thick and chunky, gestural [nature]… Over the years, my process streamlined, the process drove how the artwork looks. Being gestural wasn’t important to me. It was about telling a very specific story.

EJG: There's really a kind of idiosyncratic banality to each of them.
Most of my paintings are like that… I like to think about the difference between [the environment] I thought I was going to grow up in—where I would almost definitely be living on the moon—versus what most of us spend most of our time doing, which is shopping for groceries or going to the bank or doing your day job. I like to focus on the spaces in between the exciting things we do.

Donuts, 2010 | Oil on canvas, 5 x 5 inches

Scott Listfield was featured in editions #56 and #74 of New American Paintings. Listfield will be featured next month in Stars and Cars: Paintings by Jason Chase and Scott Listfield, a two-man show at Laconia Gallery, Boston, opening December 3. He is currently featured in the exhibition Icons + Altars at the New Art Center, Newton, MA.

Images courtesy the artist.

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