Gabi Lewton-Lepold: I'd like to start by asking you about the figures in your paintings. You paint women of color in a strong and tender way. These figures take up space, often filling the frame as if they are about to burst beyond the confines of the painting (thinking in particular of In Bed). What do these figures mean to you—do you envision their bodies to be claiming space?
Lilian Martinez: In Bed and Pastel Caves are based on newer sketches / ideas. I do feel like lately I have been thinking about occupying space more. Particularly in spaces that were not designed for me. Like many people of color, I experience nuances of racism on an everyday basis. Occupying space feels empowering and delightful to me. Possibly these personal feelings are being projected on to my work. It is important to me that the subjects I paint emanate a sense of comfort even if they occupy the whole frame. I think for me that has to do with the composition of the frame and the colors surrounding the subjects.
GLL: The scale and purposely off proportions of your figures are really intriguing and unexpected. For me, it removes the impulse to fetishize the female form (as so much of western painting has done), and instead brings out a sense of celebration, joy, and even humor. Can you share your thinking behind pairing small heads with robust bodies?
LM: I paint large figures because I think they look beautiful and strong. I proportion the heads to be smaller because I feel like it emphasis the strength in the shoulders. There is something playful and visually beautiful about these proportions to me. I do intentionally de-sexualize the subjects that I paint. Woman are sexualized a majority of their lives starting at a very young age. I don't want to contribute to the normalization of that culture. That being said, I don't paint with those intentions in mind. I make images that I think are beautiful and joyful. I only really start to think about why I am choosing to make this type of work after the work is completed. I paint because it's fun for me and it improves my quality of life. I feel very fortunate that the images resonate with other people, especially women.
GLL: The fact that you paint because you enjoy it and it enriches your life resonates with me, and I'm sure with many people. I'm not a painter, but I find that if I have any kind of creative project going I feel more alive. Can you share a bit about your background and how you came to painting?
LM: I studied photography in college. I really struggled with it because I could never capture the image as I imagined it. When I started drawing and painting it was very liberating. I felt more in control and it was really fun. I realize now that I studied photography because I had a strong desire to make images. Photography seemed like the most accessible medium at that point in my life.
GLL: I've only been to LA once, but I can still see the light of LA—the pinks, browns, tans, and the greens of the cacti and succulents—in your paintings. How does place inform your work?
LM: The sun is really strong here. It can make colors look washed out and bright. I read that Matisse's palette changed when he moved to the south of France. I was really excited to get the opportunity to visit Nice, France last summer. I do feel like I could see the colors and settings reflected in Matisse's work. I think location can play a role in inspiration if you allow it. I try to find inspiration wherever I go. It's something I am always thinking about.
GLL: In your BESE feature you speak about being a kid and feeling like didn't belong fully to being American or Mexican, that you didn't fit in completely to either identity, but as you got older you discovered that there's a "new type of American" that can take things from each culture that speaks to them. Can you talk about how your art practice combines these two identities?
LM: In the images I make I like to combine elements that make sense to me visually. These things can seem unrelated but they are relevant to my experience and my interests. I think in this same way immigrants and children of immigrants like myself integrate things into their lives that resonate with them.
GLL: In addition to your art practice you also run a small business, BFGF, where you make and sell woven versions of your work. When did you start BFGF and can you tell us about the process of making these pieces? How do you select what images will become part of BFGF?
LM: My objective with BFGF is to make functional art objects that people can integrate into their home and their everyday life. I started BFGF about 5-6 years ago. I wanted to make tactile objects. Things that you could touch and use. The images I use for BFGF pieces are digital illustrations. I started drawing digitally before I started painting. It was a good transitional medium from photography to painting.
GLL: In both your paintings and your BFGF pieces, you often juxtapose figures with symbols and imagery that recall 90s pop culture—characters from The Simpsons, Nike swooshes, basketballs. In some works the Nike swishes are on vases or pots, which feels like a playful melding of eras—Greco-Roman influences with contemporary culture. Can you share a bit about your use of this imagery in your work?
LM: Nike, basketball and The Simpsons are things from my childhood that I feel like still occupy space in contemporary culture. They still feel relevant to me. I like to pair them with classical architectural elements because there is something humorous and interesting about it to me. Maybe that is part of the first generation experience. It is a remix of my experiences and my interests.
Thank you, Lilian and Gabi!