Artist Profile | Scott Listfield’s Wandering Astronaut
Artwork: “Diplodocus” by Scott Listfield.
If you’ve ever lived abroad, you know the “I’m not from around here” feeling. Maybe you don’t speak the language. The customs aren’t quite what you’re used to. The food at the grocery store is unfamiliar. Life seems just a little bit off.
Scott Listfield felt that way, like a stranger in a strange land, even in his home town of Boston. He had done what a young man was supposed to do: he went to college (at Dartmouth), he traveled (to Italy and Australia), and he got a job (as a designer), but something remained unsettled. His true passion was art. He wanted to paint. He just didn’t know what yet. Then, around 2001, he watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and saw his sense of bewilderment and rootlessness mirrored back to him in an astronaut.
This wasn’t the first time an astronaut had hijacked his attention. When he was a child, like many little boys, he was fascinated by the space explorers. His ideas about the future had involved flying cars and robot friends and people living on the moon. “That’s the kind of adulthood I thought I would grow up into as a little kid,” he says. Instead, he found himself in the “future” and all he’d amounted to was “a fresh college graduate who was doing very mundane, everyday things, pretending to be an adult.”
Kubrick’s astronaut represented a promise that went unfulfilled, so Listfield brought the astronaut from the cinematic “2001” into the real 2001 – or, rather, onto his canvas. That astronaut has been meandering around Listfield’s painted world ever since.
“When I was thinking about a landscape for my astronaut to wander around in — he does sort of wander in the natural landscape as well — I wanted him to wander around in a landscape that felt like the world that we had created, that felt sort of familiar,” Listfield says. That world is peppered with pop culture references, be it in the form of McDonald’s golden arches, SeaWorld’s Shamu, a 7-Eleven sign, or Chicago’s bean-shaped Cloud Gate sculpture.
“What we watched on TV, what kind of cereal we ate, what we got in our Happy Meals when we were children, for better or worse, that’s our common language,” 40-year-old Listfield says of the Gen X generation. “I can meet anybody within five or ten years of me, and I can talk to them about watching ‘Transformers’ on TV, reading Spider-Man comic books, going to McDonald’s, shopping at the Gap, or whatever. That kind of feels like that’s our American language.”
And yet, despite the easily identifiable environment, Listfield’s astronaut looks completely out of place, confused, lonely. He treads what appears to be an unpopulated Earth, which begs the question: What happened to everyone? Is this the future? A post-apocalyptic future?
It wouldn’t be too far of a leap. Lately, Listfield has found his art veering into blatantly political territory, depicting scenes like an abandoned, graffiti-laden school bus impaled with a tattered American flag or a sinking building with a tattered Trump billboard attached to it.
“When you’re an artist, you say things. I feel like I kind of have to speak about what’s going on right now. I feel like people on all sides of the political spectrum have concerns about what we’re doing, where we’re going. I felt the more immediate need to voice those concerns lately than I have in the past,” Listfield explains.
Subtext on climate change, globalization, and consumerism have been in the background of his paintings for years. Each one seems to ask, “What kind of world are we living in?” or “What kind of world are we leaving behind?” Further confounding the matter are Listfield’s dinosaurs, which appear occasionally and make one wonder if these scenes took place in the past. Can the astronaut time-travel? Have dinosaurs been revived a la “Jurassic Park”?
Listfield isn’t answering these questions, at least not in the paintings. Instead, he invites the viewer to feel that existential anxiety and emptiness through the astronaut’s eyes (err…helmet visor). Whether or not that feeling will inspire people to live their lives in such a way that they leave a meaningful legacy behind, who knows.
One thing’s for sure: Listfield will be remembered as “that astronaut guy.” It’s already a phrase art-lovers associate with him and his work. “If I were a company, to have brand recognition like that would be immensely valuable,” he says. “It’s actually pretty great. I don’t mind being ‘that astronaut guy.'”
But has Listfield painted himself into a corner, so to speak, with this astronaut-traversing-the-Earth motif?
“I’d only really feel pigeon-holed if I got tired of painting astronauts, if that were something I really wanted to abandon and felt that I had to stick with it, then it would be a sort of burden,” he says. “Even though I paint more of them now than I ever have before, I still like painting astronauts. It hasn’t gotten tiring to me. I haven’t run out of things to say.”