The Subversive, Surreal and Irrepressibly Weird World of Ruth Marten

Ruth Marten’s works on paper are a beguiling mix of the surreal and the subversive, and are often disarmingly funny. They are primarily interventions, or détournements engaging with 18th and 19th century prints and illustrations, to change and subvert their original intention or meaning. She works with Indian ink and watercolors, using her extraordinary draughtsmanship to alter, and add into, old illustrations from encyclopedias, or sometimes 18th century fashion prints. Her skill makes her additions indistinguishable from the original, and, through these additions, she creates odd disjunctions and startling, often humorous images.

Her art is full of delicacy and weird eroticism and creates a surprising new world of enchantment and strangeness, which she invites us to enter. You can see a wide range of her work on her website.

The Natural Order

The Natural Order

Ruth Marten started out as a tattoo artist, working on the fringes of the art world in her Native New York, long before tattooing became the socially acceptable, ubiquitous phenomena it is today. She then moved to working on paper and a long and prolific period working as an illustrator for a diverse range of clients including Jean Paul Goude, the renowned French graphic designer, producing illustrations for books, magazines and album covers. She then started to make and exhibit her own, very particular, works on paper.

Although not working in collage per se, it could be said that the aesthetics of collage, especially as developed by the surrealist Max Ernst in his groundbreaking work Une Semaine de Bonté, are a strong influence in Ruth Marten’s work.

Collage, the twentieth century technique of combining together images from radically different sources, is widely agreed to have been invented by Picasso and Georges Braque somewhere between 1907 and 1914. Picasso, speaking about the origins of collage, commented that he and Braque had been seeking a form of representation that induced in the viewer

a trompe l’esprit—a kind of ontological strangeness — instead of the more familiar, painterly trompe l’oeil. As Picasso expressed it, “in collage the displaced object has entered a universe for which it was not made and where it retains, in a measure, its strangeness. And this strangeness was what we wanted to make people think about because we were quite aware that the world was becoming very strange and not exactly reassuring.”

Caged Birds

Caged Birds

This trompe l’esprit can be experienced in many of Ruth Marten’s images e.g. in her Caged Birds,  where the familiar image of a bird in a cage is suddenly made strange. Ruth Marten’s image shows birds in intricate cages constructed to fit them exactly, like weird fashion garments. The familiar image of a caged bird now provokes a sense of ontological strangeness and gains a strong metaphysical resonance here.  The response to these images will no doubt remain a personal one, but one possible response could be to see them in terms of the close fitting cages which we create for ourselves, cages shaped by our own desires e.g. the intricate cages of demanding jobs and restrictive relationships.

Mameluck rgb-1


The wonderful image of the girl with the enormous fox’s tail sticking out through the back of her bustle in Mameluck is another provocation, which gives a sense of trompe l’esprit. As well as reminding us of the animal nature present in everyone, it wittily and subversively changes the way we see the bustle, and also could perhaps provoke us to re-examine current accepted conventions of clothing. Native Girl Redux also changes forever the way we view a crinoline and makes it difficult to see a crinoline in a period drama without thinking of all the various feet emerging from underneath it.

Ruth Marten often uses illustrations and prints from old encyclopedias as starting points for her work, so the subject matter can vary widely from images of Chinese cabinets to rococo frames, hairstyles and quadrupeds. Through her détournements, her subversive interventions into these prints, which were often early scientific attempts to rationalize and categorize the natural world, she enters into the taxonomic process and through her playful additions underscores the inherent partiality of any process of categorization. She works into old illustrations from scientific books using their own visual language to subvert and destabilize the intentions of the original and introduce a sense of unease about classifying systems in general.

native girl redux

Native Girl Redux

Her work can be seen in the same light as the wonderful Jorge Luis Borges short story which has the English title “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” and the famous section which he ascribes to a

Chinese encyclopedia entitled “Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge” in which it is written that the animals are divided into (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, © tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Foucault comments that he was provoked to write his book The Order of Things by reading this particular passage of Borges because of his “laughter which shattered, as he read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought–our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things…. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing, that, by means of this fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Ruth Marten’s work often shares this joyful disruption of familiar ways of thinking, and the ability to provoke laughter at the strange and exotic charm of another way of thinking, and in the process revealing to us the limitations of our own ideologies.

Her works also often have a quality that can only be described as a very childlike sense of transgressive mischief. Ruth Marten herself says she had a very “proper” mother and in some of these works there can be seen an irrepressible desire to venture into territories which have been declared out of bounds.  A mischievous delight in the transgressive can be seen in the image called Chinese Cases, which shows a display case full of ornamental sculpted phalluses or dildos which an anteater is approaching with a long flickering tongue, and in the image of a man lying on an iceberg embracing a voluptuously reclining seal in Les Phoques, and in her picture entitled Quadrupeds, Zoophilia.

Chinese Cases

Chinese Cases

Ruth Marten’s works display an irrepressible, subversive spirit, which continually discovers the strange in the familiar, challenges the tidy categorizations of familiar thought, and delights in crossing and transgressing boundaries to venture into the territory of the weird and unfamiliar.

I interviewed Ruth Marten by email during the course of writing this, and the interview follows below.

Lavers: How did you get into tattooing? You were tattooing long before it became as popular as it is now, when it was still a fringe, subculture activity. What was it that attracted you to it?

Marten: I became interested in tattooing as an extension of drawing, my great love. As I was just out of Art School and confronting the reality of paying rent, it dawned on me, in my youthful fearless ignorance, that I could perhaps make a business out of tattooing, so it was the technique and not the typical designs around at the time that interested me.

As I got involved, I looked and learned, from the few existing books and pamphlets (George Burchett’s Memoirs of a Tattooist, How to Do Good Tattooing by Miss Cindy Ray, and the Bishop Museum’s Marquesan Tattoo Booklet), that tattoo was a verb and not a noun; therefore I could propose a world of unorthodox content to a client (Don Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven and others were coming to the same conclusion in Chicago and California). I did champion so-called Tribal designs and the tattooing of Art, (Mondrian, Art Nouveau, Aztec, Japanese prints, Victorian illustration, etc.)

Piercing has never had any appeal to me; we move “forward” piece by piece. It was quite wild enough to be tattooing illegally in a society with precious little tolerance for tattooed women, a shock to the system and open season for abuse from both men and women.

Lavers: Could you describe your process with your current work on paper?

Marten: With my current work on paper using, mostly, 18th century prints (formerly illustrated book pages), I would describe my major impulse as one of opportunity, be it extra space on the page or content that is irresistible.

Along with having been a tattooist for 8 years, I was an illustrator for 30 years (I’m so old!) and these prints really were designed to inform people who were just beginning to be able to afford to buy books, which explains the enormous range of content from Botany to Birds, Greek Gods to the powerful figures of the time, Chippendale’s catalogue of furniture to Biblical tales, High fashion to every possible odd bit one can imagine – all of it replaced, rejected or digested by our time.

I get “ideas” from looking at these remarkable three hundred year old pieces of paper lying on tables at flea markets, and that can be enough; sometimes I have to wait years for the idea to coalesce, sometimes it takes an afternoon. As I am very methodical in my drawing style, I like to leave open and unstructured my reactions. I work all the time but never before noon when I need to swim. Ideas that hit like a bolt of lightning is a romantic notion which can sometimes occur, but really, work is work is work is work…

Lavers: You said you find inspiration in old prints you find at flea markets — do you often go to flea markets?

Marten: Flea markets are Church to me and I go religiously every weekend. I love everything about them and find immense inspiration there. I like the serendipity, the hunt, the history and personality impressed upon the objects, the characters who sell the stuff, the promise of a deal, in effect, everything except, perhaps, the smell (though I love the smell of old paper). All the gifts I give come from fleas and most of my wardrobe does also. My last exhibit in New York was an homage to the experience and was called “Strange Bedfellows,” meaning I had found something in the Market and responded to it so that it eventually became either a sculpture or a picture.

We are threatened here in New York with losing our last market in Chelsea. Originally there were six huge lots that buzzed with fabulous junk every weekend. Now those lots are bland high-rise co-ops that would suit Dayton, Ohio better. There’s a Sunday Flea at Columbus Avenue and 77th Street that I also attend. If I buy one more crumbling book about how to make luggage from the animals you kill, or how to make the knots in tapestries, my bookshelves will explode but, really, who could resist? It’s history, baby, and the American fleas have it all over the European ones, perhaps because the War destroyed a lot of their stuff. The amulet markets in Bangkok are amazing, too.

Lavers:  A lot of your work involves drawing and painting hair. Can you talk about this?

Marten: I got into depicting hair originally because of the sense of line and my own little cultural dust up with the Hair Gestapo, having been curly headed in the age of ironed hair. Once in, the richness and range of the theme provided me with tons of ideas for drawings, egg tempera paintings and sculptures. I spent seventeen years depicting African American styles (highly exaggerated, which is saying something!), indigenous people’s hair constructions, flows, shapes, Hirsutism, etc.)

Lavers: How would you describe your current work on paper? Adjectives that come to mind are playful, subversive and surreal. Do you agree with these adjectives?

Marten: You certainly are correct to bring up the elements of humor, subversion and surrealism. I would add propriety, perversion, banality and innocence. I was very interested, like everyone, in Jung’s ideas at one time and I have been accused of being a cheap surrealist, but that is a long story!

My work is either very complex or very simple and definitely has much to do with my very proper mother. It’s a “place” where I “live.”

Lavers: Who would you say are the artists that have influenced you most?

Marten: Is there a person alive who’s not astounded by Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonte? I think it is the most important work of modern thinking, more so than even Duchamp.

You asked about influences and this calls for a list so hang in there: Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, H.C. Westerman, Durer, Rembrandt, Vija Celmans, Alfred Kubin, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Krazy Kat, Little Lulu, Elie Nadelman, George Bellows snow scenes, Justen Lada, Kubrick, Essiente’s A Rebours, Audobon, Jan Svankmajer, etc., etc.

Lavers: Could you tell me what you are reading at the moment?

Marten: I admit to being rather low-brow so please forgive me. These are the books on my nightstand and I have read 12 of each. I probably will get no farther.

  1. John Sloan by John Loughery
  2. Brick 90
  3. Age of Iron by M. Coetzee
  4. English Graphic by Tom Lubbock
  5. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
  6. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, Captain Cook in the South Seas by Anne Salmond
  7. Ticket Out by Max Blagg
  8. Recollections of Leonard: Hair Dresser to Queen Marie Antoinette by Leonard Autie and E. Jules Meras
  9. Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger
  10. Battle for Manhattan by Bruce Bliven, Jr.

I’d jump over the lot for a new Elmore Leonard!

Lavers: What are you looking at in your work at the moment, and do you have any thought about directions you are interested in exploring in future?

Marten: Presently, I am obsessed by water and rivers, maybe because my upcoming show is in Koln, on the Rhine, and New York is a biscuit floating on the sea. Maybe because Storm Sandy shook us up and reminded us of our zero sea level status. Maybe, in a Jungian sense, because water is emotion. It’s a starting point. Just finished putting a saddle on a rat, so who knows. I have to not be ideological as that creates illustration not art.  When one has worked for many years, many things are known. I therefore look for any opportunity to throw the cards into the air.


Works Cited

Pieced Together: Collage as an artist’s method for interdisciplinary research by Kathleen Vaughan, International Journal of Qualitative Research 4 (1) March 2005

Ruth Marten
 by Dominique Nahas  at

The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” by Jorge Luis Borges

Preface to The Order of Things by Michel Foucault

9 replies to “The Subversive, Surreal and Irrepressibly Weird World of Ruth Marten

  1. Reading this article I learned about Ruth, what she is thinking about and many other unusual things. Her work makes you smile and think — a daydream incubator for everyone including snails.

  2. Ruth Marten, our lady of the flea, spinning wonder &delight.….Bravo!

  3. Ruth’s work makes you double take, and rethink, and look again, and chuckle.

  4. I feel privileged to know Ruth Marten as it is not easy to find a fellow traveler in the creative act of transformation. Her migrations from nature to the phantasmagoric are absolutely brilliant.

  5. Fantastic interview. Ruth is an inspiration.
    Quote of the day: “Just finished putting a saddle on a rat, so who knows?”
    A big kiss to La Ruth!

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