Bushey’s Martin Langston on the Dandy, graphic design and his Post-Pop Art journey
PUBLISHED: 17:33 18 September 2020 | UPDATED: 17:33 18 September 2020
Bushey’s Martin Langston began his art career in graphic design before moving into art direction. After a hiatus he has returned to his first love, comics, and soon he’ll be hosting a solo show at Wynd Gallery in Letchworth
Keeping track of Martin Langston’s career arc is a little like following the government’s Covid-19 guidelines. Any lapse in concentration and you’re at risk of missing a major shift.
As we juggle an interview over the intermittency of Skype at a time when social distancing continued to restrict face-to-face meetings, it’s apparent that the scale and variety of his creativity is as impressive as it is varied.
Let’s begin with a genre that was an influence throughout his childhood and continues to impact his style.
Born in Hemel Hempstead, it was his grandfather’s job in what was the ‘print town’ of Watford in the 1960s that kickstarted his love of comic illustration.
‘I always found comics fascinating. My grandfather was a print machine operator at Odhams Press where they printed the comics Smash!, Pow! and Wham! and he would bring home copies for me and my brother.
‘Around the age of eight I suggested to my dad, a stereotyper at the Sun Printers, that he could swap part of my pocket money for having a comic delivered every week.’
Such was the allure of the images – he proudly shows me a 1959 edition of the Dandy Annual – that Martin amused himself by reproducing his own versions and even pondered the notion of drawing comic strips as a job.
Attending Watford School of Art, however, opened his mind to modern art.
‘I’d grown up around adults who were dismissive of modern art but at art school I realised Picasso was a genius. You can’t help but admire his work,’ he says from his ground floor studio overlooking the garden of his Bushey home.
Swayed by leanings towards cubism, as well as the likelihood of employment, Martin ventured into the world of commercial art where he began as a paste up artist, progressing to graphic design during the mid-80s.
‘Graphic design studios were opening up all over the place. Then I kind of diversified and became a freelance illustrator and cartoonist. I earned a great living and this was creatively rewarding.’
The stock market crash of 1987 ‘put the mockers on a lot of that,’ he recalls.
The advent of technology also prompted another change of direction. Apple Mac software enabled in-house employees to ‘rough something together,’ a task that would previously have demanded the expertise of industry professionals.
So, instead of producing finished images, his appreciation of visual aesthetics led him to art direction, managing and guiding others to produce artwork.
Such a career evolution reveals a man unwilling to stagnate. Or in his words, ‘I was like a butterfly drifting from one flower to the next where the nectar was more attractive.’
Yet his next job takes me by surprise. Saturated by the graphic design industry, and with a need to try something new, 15 years ago he changed to credit control and office work until, just over two years ago, he decided to resurrect his artistic skills.
Ask about the influences invested in his current portfolio and the response is, not unexpectedly, diverse. ‘Pop art, comic strip and classic art,’ he says.
‘I like to put opposite things together, a nod and a wink towards classic art and low brow art. I choose my references from outside the mainstream, the slightly more obscure, and try to create harmonious discord by arranging a palette of vivid colours that don’t naturally go together.’
Given the maverick nature of this likeable 59-year-old, it’s hardly a revelation that the materials he favours include two-litre cans of emulsion, decorators’ paintbrushes, plywood and even leftovers from unwanted furniture.
Each image begins with a coat of white emulsion followed by background colour, then the details are a mix of tight control and loose expression or, as Martin suggests, ‘the left versus the right side of the brain at work.’
He readily confesses that his latest work is ‘not everybody’s cup of tea,’ and is keen to express his gratitude to Datchworth’s Mardleybury Gallery for exhibiting his work.
‘Marilyn Comparetto was the first gallery owner to agree to see me. She realised I was an accomplished artist offering something a bit different.’
The owners of the Wynd Gallery in Letchworth are also fans and will host a solo show from September 25 to October 4 – a celebration of an artistic career that has been as eclectic as Martin’s style.
‘Whether I could have got here without doing that other stuff first, I don’t know. It’s been a bit of a journey, with many stops along the way.’