, by Roz Morris

Surreal Portraits and Landscapes: Finding the Thing We Aren’t Seeing

Martin de Pasquale discusses his approach to surreal art with Roz Morris.

  • Interview

A giant head lies on a road, watching its body marching away. It’s a scene of dislocation that’s somehow familiar. Perhaps it’s reluctance – walking towards a treadmill day at work or school. Perhaps it’s a hangover or a wish to be back in bed, sleeping. Perhaps it’s a weight of worries. Perhaps it’s an existential crisis, the moment when you think too hard about whether you know you’re real.

Welcome to the surreal imagination of Martin de Pasquale. His usual work is in brands, advertising and film as the CEO, founder and art director of OD Studio in Buenos Aires. But alongside this, he creates these haunting and often humorous images and videos of ordinary life moments.

In this video, scrolling on a phone does strange things to your head.

Tripping over your own shadow on the sidewalk. Or did it trip you?

When the pandemic hit and the world went into lockdown, Martin created his Surreal Quarantine series. It’s clever, convincing, troubling, personal — and so very relatable.

The big mouth that kept taking us to the fridge:

The weird sense of time, stasis, and our own bodies:

We wonder about the things that have suddenly gone, such as other people’s mouths:

ProEXR File Description=Attributes= channels (chlist) compression (compression): Zip16 dataWindow (box2i): [0, 0, 999, 999] displayWindow (box2i): [0, 0, 999, 999] lineOrder (lineOrder): Increasing Y pixelAspectRatio (float): 1 screenWindowCenter (v2f): [0, 0] screenWindowWidth (float): 1 type (string): “scanlineimage”=Channels= B (float) Background.alpha (float) Background.blue (float) Background.green (float) Background.red (float) Denoised beauty.alpha (float) Denoised beauty.blue (float) Denoised beauty.green (float) Denoised beauty.red (float) Denoised reflection direct.alpha (float) Denoised reflection direct.blue (float) Denoised reflection direct.green (float) Denoised reflection direct.red (float) Denoised reflection indirect.alpha (float) Denoised reflection indirect.blue (float) Denoised reflection indirect.green (float) Denoised reflection indirect.red (float) G (float) R (float) RLMask2.alpha (float) RLMask2.blue (float) RLMask2.green (float) RLMask2.red (float)

Surfaces in our home remind us of the places we can’t go. The bathroom sink is a skateboard park:

The bed is a beach:

Small things become big. Shaving is like mowing the lawn:

Surrealists have always had the language for fragmentation:

Isolation brings strange angsts:

Have you become part of the building?

I meet Martin over Zoom. This requires a mental adjustment. So far, I know him in iconic fragments, his wise and witty chronicle of our weird times. Now here he is, whole, smiling, speaking fluent English in an energetic Argentinian accent, wearing glasses and a headset, shaggy hair pulled back from his face. It’s like meeting an actor out of role. I am excited to talk about the ideas and meanings I see in his work.

He enjoys my interpretations. “I love that you can get to that! But I won’t tell you what I meant by those pieces. If I explain too much, it misses the point. I let the viewer associate what they like best. When you go to a gallery and see a giant painting on the wall… maybe for you it’s nothing, maybe someone else will be moved to tears. We understand something different. That’s the game I play with the people who look at my art.”

We discuss this, how the essence of all art is feelings, not explanations. The art happens inside the person receiving it. Like this:

During the pandemic, he says, he felt frustrated, anxious and sad — “sad that something really small could destroy our lives. I could only stay in my house. I felt like a hamster in a cage, a lab rat. How could I use this to create something? So I used the pandemic to do something useful, and show feelings, both my own and those of others.”

It was also a reboot.

“I think the pandemic told me to start again with my work and ideas. I couldn’t do anything else, I had to work with it. I also had fun, and explored. Some of the pieces I uploaded to Behance and Instagram, and others I kept just for me.”

Art was always a way of life for Martin. His family noticed him drawing from an early age and sent him for extra lessons in painting and sculpture. In high school he studied analog photography, technical drawing, artistic drawing and creativity and then went to the University of Buenos Aires for a design degree.

Was art in the family? Actually, no. “I don’t know why I have that sensibility. My mother is an accountant. My father is a lorry driver. They weren’t into art, or reading, or cinema or music. But they encouraged me and at the age of 10 I was painting large oils. I still have some of them.”

He looks around the room, to find a painting to show me. He’s kept his work from age 10? Few of us would have such confidence in our juvenilia. But Martin does, and he values that art as much as the art he makes now.

“I keep them. It’s a time machine. Actually, when I see them, I wonder, why don’t I paint any more?” He brings up a blank canvas. “I don’t have any of those pictures in this room, but this is ready for painting… any moment!”

He admits, though, that painting has taken a back seat because there are so many exciting digital tools. “It’s easier and faster to create a composition with a camera. Also, these tools give you different ways to work.” He lifts an item to show me — a pink plastic statuette of a sitting dog, impressively detailed with skinfolds and muscles and perky ears. “Right now I’m making things in 3D.”

I have the impression that, just beyond the camera’s range, there’s an entire zoo of home-made wonders. He’s always grabbing things to show me as we talk — a glossy book of fashion photography, a strange red ball with a half-painted face and one eye.

“But everything I do now is what I was taught in the early days, except with digital tools. If you understand fundamentally how art works you can do it however you want.”

He explains how he makes a piece. “I have to let an idea grow. I write something or make a note. Maybe in that first moment the idea seems cool. But it’s not, and I need time to see if it works. I must have 100 ideas in Dropbox, which I haven’t done because I don’t have time, or I don’t feel the way I felt when I wrote them down.”

He’s learned to be patient. “I feel really bad while an idea is incomplete. I used to spend so long on a piece I could no longer see if it was good or bad or cool. Now, I leave it and return the next day or the next week. I might flip the canvas around to see if there are errors and composition problems. I have to finish it but I can’t always, right at that moment. The missing piece might come while I’m reading a book or looking at a collection of photos and realize, ah my idea is about that. That can match with this.”

After that, it’s process. “I think as an art director, decide if it should be a photo, a video, what the style and setting should be. What kind of light and framing. If it’s a video, how I’ll move the camera or take the shots. What textures I’ll need.”

For static scenes, he uses Photoshop and Lightroom. For video, 3D or pieces with CGI, it’s Cinema4D, Max, Blender, Substance, PFTrack, Megascans, Bridge, Mixer, Houdini, and ZBrush. Sometimes he dusts off a specialized plugin — “and have to remind myself how to use it,” he laughs.

At this stage, the piece comes together swiftly, because he can’t take too much time away from client work. “The maximum is three days. I aim to create something simple in the minimal time possible. So I need to understand my tools very well.”

This streamlined method comes from the way he shared his early work. Back in 2011 he bought a digital camera and began editing pictures, and uploaded them to Facebook. “My goal was to upload a fun picture every two days. It was hard, but a really good way to improve because you try to think clearly and just do it.”

It was also an ideal tactic to woo fans and the Facebook algorithm. “You create a lot and people start to wait for new work. And they gave feedback. It makes good synergy… They say I love your work, and you can say, great, here is more. Then the papers started calling me.”

He’s not quite so frenetic now. “Back then, I aimed for quantity. Right now I’m slower. I try to understand an idea more.”

Always, he’s looking for the idea we are not seeing in the world around us. “I like to find new significance for objects or moments. To make you understand a new thing I’ve seen.”

Interlude: Do you know how odd you look on a bicycle?

As well as the self-portraits, Martin also plays with landscapes. “I always liked cities. Not to live in, but how they are made. Their shapes, their structures. I have a lot of work about the shapes of the city, walls, textures.”

Here’s a surrealist question. Sky or swimming pool?

Here’s a piece from an apocalyptic series called God:

He also likes to work with objects. He holds a pink coffee mug up to the camera. “I see this and it makes me think of something else… I wonder what I can do with this form and shape.”

But his most startling works must be the portraits and remodeled faces. Here’s an eerie video, titled Burnout:

“I have an obsession with the body and deforming it. Like Jenny Saville, who loves to portray bodies in a grotesque way that is also more real. When you alter faces, it always attracts attention. And the portrait is the most common picture ever, right back to the beginning of the arts. It’s the most common thing to draw, to paint, to photograph, to sculpt.”

He’s often asked why he doesn’t work with models. “First, it’s easier for me to use myself. When I started with portraits in 2011, I had no one to take pictures of, and it was simpler for me to take myself and practice. And if you’ve seen the history of paintings that’s what painters always did… painted themselves with a mirror. It’s an interesting exploration. What do you see when you see yourself? It’s what other people see. How many times do people take a picture and say ‘I don’t look good in that picture’? Nevertheless, it’s really them. It’s what the rest of us see all the time.”

There’s also another reason why he makes self-portraits — they are personal. “I use things that happen to me, or a feeling I have.”

When doing the vacuuming:

Peeling a banana:

Deciding what to wear:

I am struck by a sequence from 2013, The Human Condition Museum, which begins with a skeleton hunched at a keyboard. He calls it Man in standard position, kept throughout life. It makes me chuckle, but I also feel sad. Is this all we do with our bodies? Were we this shape when I was a child? Is this now permanent?

The idea came to him at a natural history museum. Wandering the exhibits of cavemen and prehistoric animals, he noticed the way they were posed and asked himself why. “We do not know if they were like that 100% of the time. What if someone who has no idea about humanity arrives on this planet and finds skeletons of us, a species that has abruptly disappeared, along with everything we left behind? Those would be their representations.”

He believes in actively hunting for inspiration. “You need to be curious, reach outside, talk to people, investigate. It’s hard to create something new if you don’t have resources. If you live in a white room you’ll only think in white — it’s the only thing you see.

“I like to observe people, learn new techniques from YouTube, watch movies, read books. I’m always taking photos, recently with drones and cine cameras, capturing small moments. I have a lot of things in my head and when I have an idea, I look for a word or image or composition, and maybe the work of a photographer, and try to connect things.

“I have photographers that I love, both in their compositions and their use of light, like Erik Johansson, or Erwin Olaf, or fashion photographers, like Alvaro Villarrubia, or advertising photographers, like Ricardo Salamanca. Erwin Olaf likes to take faces in low light, like Rembrandt paintings… I really like that look. It comes out of darkness. Sometimes he makes abstract and surreal things.

“And the photographer Robert Bartholot — he works in an advertising way, he uses a lot of bold colours, custom shapes. I like how simple that is. You don’t always see the faces. You see something like a puppet. They’re strong and strange.

“Another thing that fascinates me is illustration. I love the synthesis of an idea, the search for forms — for instance, the work of Christoph Niemann. I’ve been really into ARVR lately, and designing and creating on Oculus. And I’m enjoying the work of Goro Fujita, a Japanese animator.”

The hardest thing for an artist, he says, is to find a personal style. But that comes from doing work of your own. “There are people who are ashamed to show their work. They are afraid of criticism. But we are artists. Our work is created to be seen. It’s like a writer who doesn’t want his work read.” Also, he says artists shouldn’t be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. “Don’t stay in your comfort zone, because you’ll never know what’s outside. Getting something wrong is the best part, because it helps to understand what is right and what is wrong. There is only one way – do!”

Martin developed this outlook when he first started playing with digital tools, especially Photoshop. “It was the first tool I used, along with Illustrator. I was amazed. Before that, editing photographs was complex, long and expensive — cutting film, drawing on top and developing. Photoshop made it so simple. I wanted to see how far I could go. Now, I always push the limits.”

He’s not yet using AI tools, but he’s not wary of them. “A lot of people feel like they’re competing, but I think they’re fantastic tools to help work. Photoshop has a section called Neural, which are AI filters. I am using it a lot. It solves in a few clicks something that took me forever.”

He’s also grappling with the Unreal 5 video game engine. “It’s out of my comfort zone. Its logic is a bit different, since it’s angled for programming and I’m focused on the visual part, but it is powerful and it’s something I would like to control better.”

If he had a limitless budget, he says he’d make installations with giant screens and mappings. “I love those. If I could, I’d do a sample with a bunch of my ideas, and play with everything within my reach. I’m always excited about new things. Or returning to something I abandoned.”

Speaking of which, he never finished his design degree at the University of Buenos Aires. “I started to get work… and learned a lot more by doing that. I decided to not finish the course.” He won’t be returning to university, because it’s not practical, but something in his nature doesn’t like to leave something unfinished. “I have dreams about it. I didn’t complete the task. Generally I need to finish things.”

This is how the whole world works on him, setting him tasks, things to notice and show to others. “When I need a break working for clients, I really like to observe and find something we are not seeing, from the forms, or simply a resignification.” During this conversation, two words have come up frequently — “exploration” and “experiment”. I suggest that’s the essence of what he does and he agrees. “Working without briefs — surreal portraits and free explorations. That’s when I’m really happy.”

And when he has the time to work on a piece and nothing seems to gel?

“I do something really different. As well as visual art I play music — piano and drums. I fill my head with a lot of things so when I go to sleep something starts to connect .”

Read more