Life On Other Planets: A Conversation with Madeleine Tonzi
A few weeks ago, we previewed Life On Mars, a new body of work by Santa Fe-raised, Oakland-based painter, Madeleine Tonzi on view with Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francsico. The work was based on Glen Albrecht's concept of Solastalgia, a feeling of longing or mourning from the loss of ones environment and sense of home. Today, Dasha Matsuura sits down with Tonzi to discuss the works, the relationship to nature and otherworldy scenes and what gives Tonzi hope in such a complicated year. Make an appointment here to see the show in person.
Dasha Matsuura: First of all, we’re so excited to have you at the gallery for this show! Is this your first major solo exhibition?
Madeleine Tonzi: Thank you so much! I am very honored to be showing with you. I have been working towards this moment for a long time, and there have been a good handful of incredible spaces that have helped me along in this journey. However, this is indeed my first major solo exhibition with a gallery of such esteem. I am very humbled and excited.
Your work is so soothing and contemplative. Has it been hard for you to get into that brain space to make work with everything going on this year or has the studio been a retreat?
I do admit that taking on my first major solo show during a pandemic, massive social movement and crazy scary election year hasn’t been easy. The challenges of this year have been compounding, and I have experienced some of the worst anxiety I have ever had, but ultimately my practice is what has kept me going. Making art gives me a sense of purpose and a reason to focus on something meaningful. Deadlines are stressful yet motivating, but my process is also very meditative and healing. Ultimately, my art has been a reliable gift throughout these turbulent times, and the studio truly has been a retreat.
The concept of solastalgia has been prevalent in your work for a long time. Can you tell us more about the idea and what draws you to it in your paintings?
Awe, solastalgia! This has been a concept that has been foundational in guiding me throughout the years, and has remained relevant as time continues. Solastalgia is a term developed by environmental philosopher and psychologist, Glenn Albrecht. He observed a particular emotional impact on people as a response to negative changes in their environment. Specifically in response to climate change, natural disaster, and human industrial impact to the land. Solastalgia describes the feeling of longing for or mourning over the direct loss of a person’s environment and their sense of home.
Creating work through the lens of that concept has looked different over the years. However, it has provided me with a road map to investigate my personal relationship to place, the power of nostalgia to override memory, and how littered landscapes laden with boundaries have shaped my emotional connection to the land. My work is informed by this, and out of that evolves these imagined landscapes through which I attempt to capture the essence of a place by means of my emotional attachment to it.
Your work in the last year or so really feels like you’ve found your voice. There seems to be less folk influence but still a deep connection to the desert. The work feels even more distilled and concise. What do you think brought about this change in your work?
Yes! I have finally settled into a certain confidence concerning my work, and it feels so good. My visual language has changed quite drastically over the years, and the change has always come about through process and shift in material use, as well as my internal drive to push forward. My ideas are always one step ahead of the series I’m on, but I do feel a very strong gravitational pull towards the current direction of my work.
The shift from my more folky art occurred when I was painting a mural in which the cinder blocks on the wall began to dictate a more angular and geometric image. From there it started to inform my studio work, and that is when the geometric and architectural forms took hold, and where I digressed from the lush organic elements of my older work. Interestingly, this coincided with a huge shift in my housing situation as well in which I felt very out of control of my own life a couple of years back. With this, my work became more meticulous and the process demanded control and focus. Now, I have moved into a place in life where I am more focused and determined to create the artist life I want, and with that I have become more serious about the quality and consistency of it, while still pushing forward.
What inspired the title of the show?
The title Life on Mars was inspired by a poetic joining of material and song. As an extension of the concept of solastalgia, I consider the impact of climate change often when creating my paintings. Color is one element I use to interpret what we are experiencing on Earth right now with rising temperatures, extreme fire seasons and drought. These landscapes are an interpretation of contradiction. An expression of both anxiety and absolute awe for earths raw beauty. Simultaneously we seek to save the planet and escape it at once, and our quest to inhabit Mars is as if to admit our self destruction on Earth is inevitable, but there is always hope and action.
While considering such concepts, I happened to be listening to a cover of David Bowie’s song Life on Mars, sung by a Norwegian musician named, Aurora. It is the most hauntingly beautiful version, and the lyrics in that moment during this summer felt so deeply relevant to the state of our being. At that moment, the title just clicked.
Connection to nature is such a big part of your work. Where are your favorite outdoor spaces?
Nature is my church. It is where I feel most connected to my place in the universe as well as with this complex and mysterious planet we call home. Some of my favorite outdoor places are in the high desert of New Mexico where I grew up. I feel grounded by the red rock formations and mesas of the Southwest, and comforted by the mountainous regions that accompany the desert. I am also so taken by the diverse beauty of the California coastline, where the redwoods meet the ocean and succulents cling to the sides of Mars like rocks as the fog billows in and the seal pups play in tide pools. There is so much magic to experience in the wild. We really need to protect those spaces.
Architecture and portals play a dominant role in your work. What do they represent to you?
I have become interested in architecture within my work as a means to explore concepts of freedom, boundaries and protection. The ways in which the built world shapes our surroundings and navigation within it intrigue me. To consider the earth we move and remove to create these structures is wild and consequential.
Sometimes buildings blend into the natural setting in attempt to camoflauge, but often not, consequently separating us from nature. Lately I have been integrating imagery of mountains into the architectural shapes as a way to discuss where our materials come from and how that transforms the land, and our perception of what home means.
The portals are a metaphor for the various paths we take throughout life, and how each action we take opens up a new dimension with infinite possibilities. Portals are all around us within the people and places in our lives, and they are available to us if we seek them out.
You’ve talked about how colors and shapes symbolize different things throughout the work. What are some of the meanings behind some of your shapes and color choices?
I started including these neon bars throughout my work that stand as metaphorical thermometers symbolizing the climate crises. The neon suns coincided with this as fires have become frequent and intense, simultaneously electrifying and muddying our skies. My color palette reflects this too, as well as representing the place in which I grew up. It is a consideration of the past, present and future, and an attempt to capture the essence of a moment. This essence is captured through soft ombre skies that evoke the ephemeral nature of the experience of time.
Painting large scale murals is also a big part of your practice, but your canvas works are typically very intimately sized. How does scale affect your approach to different paintings?
The smaller more intimate work forces me to focus in on cropped glimpses of a grander perspective. Larger canvases allow for me to imagine a more complex and expansive environment in which the viewer gains more context. I am really looking forward to creating more large scale works in which I can explore dimension where multiple levels and realities can be expressed within one painting.
You did a large mural for Meow Wolf. How was that experience?
Creating a mural for Meow Wolf was such an enriching experience. Spending time inside the House of Eternal Return during off hours immersed in the multiverse was reality bending to say the least. There is a creative energy pulsing through the place, even when people aren’t there. It feels as thought the installation has taken on a life of its own. It is quite magical and inspiring to be in the presence of so many talented artists and creators. Witnessing what can be achieved through the collective was the most inspiring thing I took from that experience, and I am forever grateful for it.
If you could use one of the portals in your paintings to go anywhere, where would it be?
Hmmm, Mars? Just kidding! But really, I keep dreaming of New Zealand. During the catastrophe of Covid and the utter lack of leadership to move us through multiple crises, I admit to daydreaming of a different reality multiple times a day. Living in the United States, I feel like the sick child staring out the window longingly at all the healthy kids playing games together. Jacinda Ardern’s leadership has me feeling an intense kind of envy. Plus it’s on my bucket list to go see the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. I have also been yearning to go to a planetarium, a bit of a portal in its own. They are a great way to escape and I love how soothing the narration is. Waiting on that portal to open on up!
What makes you feel hopeful these days?
I find hope in that from struggle comes growth. We are experiencing a moment of friction, but there are masses of people standing up for what is right all over the world, carrying on our ancestors legacy who fought for a better world. It can be really easy to lose hope though during these times, but ultimately I think hope is necessary to survival. I often refer back to Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark. She underscores hope as a means for meaningful action, and speaks of momentous victories that are often slow to evolve or difficult to measure in the present moment, but unfold as time reveals. We humans are resilient and that makes me feel hopeful.
Any exciting other projects coming up?
After Life on Mars I will hit the ground running preparing work for two group shows with Hashimoto Contemporary, one with Faultline ArtSpace featuring one hundred female artists, as well as a commission in which I will spend time in my home state of New Mexico to create. I will also be doing a print release with Hashimoto this month with a hand embellished variant and a print with Pangea Seed in December as well. There is a lot to look forward to as far as creative collaboration goes.
Life On Mars is on view at Hashimoto in San Francisco until November 28th. Make an appointment here to see the show in person.