Ruth Marten’s illustrations are a strange hybrid of 18th and 19th century prints – taken from encyclopaedias, science and fashion journals – and a surreal and subversive aesthetic that brings ornithology, indigenous tribal women, strange hairstyles and antiques into a world that is turned upside down, downright funny and utterly bizarre.
Using Indian ink and watercolours and a wonderful technique, honed by years working as a tattoo artist, Marten subverts the original prints to create a new image with an alternative meaning. It’s a technique made popular by the Situationists in the 1960’s and further developed during the Punk era of the 1970’s and the culture jamming movement in the late 1980’s. The result is a series of pictures that are almost indistinguishable from the original, you need to look closely to see the odd disjunctions and funny additions in her brave new world of exoticism, enchantment and magical originality.
These wonderful illustrations are the work of an artist who delights in the subversive, who loves exploring and challenging the tidy categorizations of familiar thought, in transgressing boundaries and journeying into the territory of the weird and unfamiliar. Here’s what she had to say about her work in an interview with The Weird Fiction Review
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.)
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.