Professor Marc Handelman doesn’t hesitate to describe his paintings as “disturbing” and “creepy.”


Credit: Jessica Dickinson

Handelman, a painter who also works in film/video, installation, and book arts, exhibited 12 new paintings and an artist’s bookat Sikkema Jenkins & Co.’s gallery in New York City last spring. At first glance, this series, focused on elements in nature, seems ordered, even serene. But take a second look at works such asSomnambulist, Dear Stakeholder, and Touching Lives, Improving Life, notice the swirling botanicals and insects that form visages--and you will feel the disquiet that Handelman alludes to.

Here, Handelman discusses his work, his inspirations, and his first “artsy” job.

Do you come from an artistic family?

Neither of my parents are artists [Handelman’s mother was a lawyer who dealt with environmental issues; his father practiced internal medicine.]but I really grew up with wonderful exposure to art through my parents’ enthusiasm for it. As I grew older, I got to know our neighbor, Herb Greene, who was a post-modernist architect and a painter. It was always inspiring, thrilling really, to be in his studio. Being in Herb's studio was the first time I was ever able to actually imagine what it might be like to work as an artist. It was one of the first steps in demystifying art.

What was your first job?

My first [interesting] job was working as an afterschool arts coordinator for a Berkeley (California) Montessori school one summer during college. I was working with 5- and 6-year-old kids. It was wonderful, but I don’t think I have ever worked harder in my life. I would just go home after work every day and collapse. 

What inspires you?

I am finding [inspiration] in unexpected places these days as I spend so much time with my 4-year-old daughter. It’s a cliché, but it’s just amazing to rediscover everything with her. I think children can also force you to be more open, and my work has definitely been impacted by this. Perhaps I often find the deepest inspiration in art itself, and the dialogues I have with other artists. Artists need critical feedback from other artists who understand the technical, formal, philosophical, and critical problems that attend to the making of things.

In some of your recent paintings, you set nature–plants and bugs–against a white backdrop to create human faces. What gave you that idea and what are you trying to communicate with these pieces?

I came across a Toyota Sustainability Report for European shareholders that had this incredible image on the cover with these exotic botanicals and fauna forming the face of an “Asiatic” woman. This was clearly an adaptation on a well-known painting by the Mexican Surrealist Octavio Ocampo. I immediately became drawn to these two ideas–the anthropomorphizing of nature and with that its gendering, feminizing, and idealization... The white “ground,” or backdrop, in [my] paintings is a way to allude to both a screen-like digital space of the image, and to the conventional white makeup of the Geisha.

My work has often explored how beauty [is] used to [sell] different beliefs, values, and desires.

Are you afraid that these pieces will be seen solely for their aesthetic value – i.e. their prettiness?

Dear Stakeholder, 2014. Oil on canvas. 87.5 inches by 61.75 inches.  
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York   

I do think it’s easy for many people to take these pieces at face value given their subject matter – butterflies, flowers, beautiful plants etc. But these images also have to get under your skin. There’s an intentionally disarming quality to them. The titles are there to agitate that serenity… but I also think there is something actually disturbing, if not creepy, in the paintings themselves, in their pervasive unnaturalness, the hyper-control with which they were made, and the overall feeling of mediation, or even mechanization.

Why is the pursuit of art important to you?

Art is tenuously amoral. It has been used to legitimize and support repressive and violent regimes, institutions, and social structures. [It has also been used] as a way to resist them… Meaning, of course, is never fixed, but I think it’s important to risk the irrelevance, and possible misappropriation of art. The pursuit of art is the desire to critically communicate and express the urgency of what’s at stake in our shared lives and in our shared world.  

Posted February 2016