Unless you’ve lived off the grid for the past three-quarters of a century, you’ve probably heard of the brief novella,1984. Published in 1949 by English author, George Orwell, the dystopian work introduced concepts like Big Brother, Orwellian, and double-think to the English lexicon, now used loosely to comment on a highly surveilled and totalitarian society. After the Trump inauguration, many publications and news sources such as The New Yorker, Time, the Washington Post, CBS, The New York Times, BBC, and others have reported a spike in dystopian fiction, primarily 1984, due to the new administration’s use of concepts and ideas like building a wall around Mexico, reporting fake news, and its double-think politics. For his latest exhibition at Los Angeles' Thinkspace Gallery, painter Scott Listfield chose to channel the zeitgeist of Orwell’s 1984, coupled with 80s pop cultural references and set in Los Angeles. In short, Listfield’s exhibition provides an alternative history of 1984 in Los Angeles, to create a world that might have been.
Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre: So tell more about the show and its literary narrative.
Scott Listfield: Sure. Over the past 20 years, I’ve been painting astronauts in my work as a recurring series. And recently, like in the past 3-4 years, as I’ve gotten more shows, I’ve started to look at them as chapters in a story. So I started thinking about this show because of all the weird politics and the weird lies that have been going on. And ‘cause of the dark times right now, I wanted to paint something about 1984 because the book had been on my mind, and because I read an article that said that the book climbed to the top of Amazon’s best seller list. It all seemed to be in the air – like this proto-fascist dystopian thing was creeping into our normal everyday life. But I didn’t want to do this super dark show, and there’s also this nostalgia for the 80s, especially for younger people. And I grew up in the 80s so now my childhood had suddenly become cool. So it was a combination of this fictionalized 80s like a pop culture ideal and the book. And I’m not from Los Angeles, but I’m inspired but the city and the combination of hyper-colors like purple and pink that are era- specific, with like dark undertones that are 1984-driven like fascism.
Were you inspired by any other dystopian fiction like We or Brave New World? Or A Handmaid’s Tale?
You know, I didn’t read anything else like that because I thought it’d be too depressing on top of everything else. But I am in this other Margaret Atwood-themed show up in Portland. I did read a trilogy she did, MaddAddam and I read Brave New World once, but a while back. Oh and Fahrenheit 451, and movies that take place in that world like Bladerunner and Terminator 2. And Mad Max. Those kinds of scenes all inspire my work because we have this Hollywood-ized obsession with our own extinction. Often the future is terrible and we’re aware of it, but we have the ability to control that destiny but we willfully ignore that as an option. So it’s like, eat popcorn and sit back and watch our demise.
Why Los Angeles? Why here? Is the theme because it’s at Thinkspace here in Los Angeles?
That was a big part of it but I’ve had a long fascination with Los Angeles as a place. And not just from visiting, but from watching it in movies growing up. And now coming here regularly, I’ve grown to love this city, and not the parts you see in movies. I’m from Boston, but to have ocean and desert, and city, and mountains and all blended together, its so far from the landscape that I’ve been used to. So the astronaut in my work has like this alien presence, because he’s not from there, and that’s how I feel when I come here. Like an explorer in L.A.
I read an interview about you where someone wrote that your astronaut was like an existentialist looking back at this absurd world. Is there any truth to that?
(Laughing) I’m not that up-to-date on my existential reading. And that’s some heavy stuff, but when I was younger I lived abroad, in Italy and Australia. And I got used to traveling on my own and you get used to this idea of being from somewhere else. It’s just something you get used to. When I returned, I felt out of place, and it was heightened, like reverse culture shock. And I felt displaced, looking around for things like Oreos in Italy because here we have a culture of excess and there I couldn’t find any. People think of the astronaut as lonely, and that could be considered a bad thing, but the astronaut is very much alone. A lone observer. And that’s important to the way I tell stories in my paintings.
I love that, it’s like looking at it from a first-person perspective. Your work has a very literary feel to it, and it’s from the astronaut’s point of view.
Yeah, I’ve always looked at my work as short stories. Like a little chapter in a short story and a protagonist appears in each one.
Does this protagonist have a name, or is it an unnamed narrator? Or an unreliable one?
Its definitely an unnamed narrator. People have asked me if the astronaut has a name, a gender, ethnicity, which I feel is irrelevant. I didn’t want you to think of the astronaut as a person, or gender, but rather an empty vessel.
That is very existentialist right there. There you go.
I want whoever is looking at it to slide into the astronaut’s shoes. I enjoy writing, if I wasn’t an artist maybe I’d be a writer, because the storytelling aspect of it is very important. My work is very science-fiction based, and it doesn’t belong to one culture or the other. That’s why I like telling these stories, because whatever your background is, we can relate on some level based on some of the pop cultural references and some of the movies we’ve watched. There’s a certain tone to my work, because there’s a touch of loneliness, but also excitement to explore somewhere you’ve never been before.
So last question. Are you influenced by any particular artists or art movements?
Yeah, when I was in school at Dartmouth, I studied painting but I was an art history minor. I liked abstract expressionism and modernism, but in college I figured out that I wanted to do these figurative narrative paintings. And some of that tradition stopped in the 20s, and I was influenced by these artistic heroes, but it seemed so long ago. So there was a point when I stopped going to museums and I was more influenced by movies and television and books. So my influences now, are more about my peers. But really it’s like the Juxtapoz generation. That group of artists has brought back that serious tradition of embracing narrative work, that tells a story, or has an emotional tone. It’s brought all that back, so I feel really attached by what’s going on now. I’d rather be influenced by someone I could meet and show with rather than someone who died a hundred years ago.
Scott Listfield’s work, 1984, is currently on view at Thinkspace Gallery in Culver City until January 27, 2018
Interview by Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre