Interview with Steve Mumford

"Empire" Steve Mumford

Interview by Claire Cushman MFA 2015
“I tried heroically to be an Abstract Expressionist in the late 80s and early 90s,” says Steve Mumford, when asked how he came to paint scenes of war. “It took me years to shake that and realize I wanted to return to my illustrational roots, to tell stories with my paintings.”
          When Mumford began to take narrative painting seriously, his work centered upon the conflict between man and nature. However, once he began painting war imagery, he never stopped. Between 2003 and 2013, he made numerous trips to war zones and army hospitals in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was even assigned by Harper’s Magazine to observe and record at the Guantanamo prison complex. He created hundreds of drawings on the spot, and gathered source material for large oil paintings, which he would later make at home.  
          In June, Mumford showed his latest paintings, which reflect these travels, at Postmasters Gallery. As a student in Mumford’s Narrative Painting class in 2015, I was very curious about his work and his involvement with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Below, Mumford answers some questions about his work and his time overseas.

What got you first interested in painting subjects of war?

War has always seemed to me to hold a terrible glamour. I remember seeing the Life magazine coverage of the Vietnam War as a child, and being terrified and mesmerized simultaneously. My Mom took me to many anti-war protests in Cambridge in the late 60s. The war was very present for me.

Did you ever consider fighting in a war?

Not really, although I never thought I'd dodge the draft, if called. I've also had a herniated disc in my lower back since I was a teenager, which probably would have caused me to fail basic training! But I was pretty focused on art and a studio practice; I don't really have the type A personality that thrives in the military.

Can you describe a particularly vivid scene from your travels to war zones?

I spent three weeks drawing at the famed Baghdad ER during the violent period of the surge, in early 2007. Wounded and dying Americans and Iraqis came in multiple times a day, every day, by helicopter and Humvee, sometimes accompanied by their buddies, fresh from the scene of carnage. I drew and drew, trying to stay out of the way, but trying to make a drawing that was intelligible; I passed the doctors supplies as they worked. The effort of trying to make visual sense of the chaos going on inches from my paper gave me a certain needed emotional remove, as limbs were amputated, ribs cracked open in order to massage the heart of a dying soldier… it was intense beyond what I can describe.

What sorts of situations did you find yourself in as a painter? Did you ever feel in danger?

Many times, although combat was usually the exception rather than the rule. I've been in firefights where I had to try to flatten myself between tiny furrows in farmland. I've had RPGs shot at me and IEDs blown up near me. Completely typical stuff for being in those war zones that every reporter will identify with.

How did journalists and soldiers react to having a contemporary war artist around?

I was a favorite among journalists, who are always looking for a story or a new angle. They wound up doing a lot of reporting on me! They often thought it was really cool that I was approaching the story of the wars with this 19th century medium. Soldiers were somewhat less interested, being focused on their missions, unless I drew a portrait, or painted a unit insignia for a wall.

How do you compose your paintings?

A painting usually starts from a memory or an idea that came from an experience. But I’m not good at creating from my head, so I hire models and photograph them, restating a scene. I also use the copious photographs I took in country as reference materials. I'm not a purist about having to do a lot of drawing or working from life, even though the point of my trips to war zones was in fact to draw from life.

The press release for the show states that you follow yet subvert the 19th century model of history painting. Instead of representing momentous historical events, you focus on the personal – moments of silence, pause, private drama, the “other side” of the war. What inspired you to take this approach in your painting?

It would ring false to recreate the great battle compositions of the past, which reflect an entirely different mindset about the meaning of a conflict. To work in the manner of, say, David, would just appear to be heavy-handed, an exercise in irony. The irony in a good history painting should be subtle, not hit the viewer over the head. For example, in my painting Crossed Swords Monument, I wanted to reference the works of Canaletto and Guardi: the nostalgia and poignancy of living among the great ruins of the past. But in this case, the ruins are the massive monument Saddam built to commemorate his pointless decade-long war with Iran. Their neglect reflects the failures of the US occupation to keep order, as Iraqis raided the monument for scrap bronze to sell. Yet I wanted the painting to have a certain lonely beauty, as both Iraqis and US personnel consort quietly beneath the dignity of the huge swords and the heavy sky.

Many of these paintings include large sections of landscape – can you comment on the role of landscape in your paintings?

Landscape was my introduction to painting, my first love. I think landscape is a wonderful vehicle for emotion. Constable comes to mind; Giorgioni's Tempest!

Who are your greatest artistic influences?

Ribera has probably been my greatest inspiration over the last few years. Most painting from the Baroque, but particularly De la Tour, the Le Nain brothers. Then Gericault and Delacroix - even David! Among more recent artists, I love the work of the figurative artists holding out against Ab Ex, Pop & Conceptualism: Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Paul Georges, the Bay Area & Hairy Who artists.
And my contemporary pals, Adam Cvijanovic, Ellen Altfest, Will Cotton, David Humphrey, the great Inka Essenhigh (my wife), Jansson Stegner, Hillary Harkness, Nicole Eisenman, where to stop? There are so many interesting artists working figuratively today… we may finally bring down the odd primacy that modern art has held for so long among NYC institutions.

What advice do you have for young artists?

Every bit of advice sounds like a cliche that everyone's already heard. The one thing that I try to emphasize is the importance of sticking together with your cohorts: your pals from grad school, your studio mates, and being generous in sharing gallery or curator connections. This will come back for you and help you get your work out there. The nature of a studio practice is solitary but don't seclude yourself on an island.

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