Eddie Martinez: “A Painter”

One admirer calls him “the bastard child of Philip Guston” (the maverick artist who see-sawed between figuration and abstraction, and whose late paintings featured R. Crumb style shoes and buffoon hooded KKK figures riding around in hot rods.) Martinez embraces a long tradition that uses pop images as cultural tropes; he is in an equally long tradition of artists who bathe their work in deep, richly textured paint: concisely put, “A Painter.”

There’s an art scene blogger who is moved by Martinez’ numerous portraits of paired siblings and other child innocents.

One critic “reads” Martinez’ work by digging into the very paint itself:

The artist uses the mutability of his medium to add and subtract layers of paint and to create constant movement across the canvas. His bold and sometimes aggressive approach to the imagery gives the work a fresh and raw quality. The longer the viewer studies the painting, the more recognizable the plethora of cultural references become.

And a friend of Martinez refers to his thick, wide-brush textures and riot of colors, calling him “an impasto painter extraordinaire.”

Martinez' studio floor.

Yet another critic, João Ribas, writes that Martinez’ paintings embody:

the reconciliation of the principles of modern painting – flatness and self-referentiality among them – with the seemingly pre-modern function of genre as a communicative form. . . His drawings and paintings both look to genre painting to enact a confrontation with tradition, negotiating a set of pictorial conventions drawn from the vocabulary of genre, yet through the modernist logic of subjective, individual style.

This Artforum cant is in no way how Eddie Martinez discusses his paintings and drawings. Interviewed by a friend about how he ferrets out ideas and begins to work, Martinez says simply:

Sometimes an idea will work its way into a drawing… I don’t know… I don’t really make plans for it so much.  I usually just start it.  The ideas come at different stages throughout the process.

Like Wallace Stevens’ poetic blackbird, there are multiple ways to look at Eddie Martinez’ paintings.

Questioned about other aspects of his working method, the artist is equally non-didactic, just as he is in the above quote. Like his painting, the man is immediate, intuitive, physical.

He loves paint; he loves brushes, he loves the canvas itself. Standing in front of one of his paintings, you sense this above all else. There is no artist working today who so relishes the work of making paintings. I emailed Martinez, observing that his studio clutter looks in photos to run a close second to the controlled chaos of Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio, which after Bacon's death was dismantled in London, transported to and reconstructed inside the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

Ireland.com—Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane link

After an itinerant childhood and moving around New York City the past several years, Martinez has settled down in a studio and nearby apartment in the hip enclave of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He and Samantha "Sam" Moyer (a rapidly emerging fellow artist) are going to marry in early July. Like many New York artists, they have a summer studio outside the city. That studio is a converted early 19th century barn sited at the foot of Cape Cod, on land belonging to Moyer’s father, film gaffer Michael Moyer, and Sam’s mother, painter and psychologist, Dr. Mary Coogan. If this information seems unusually “insider,” it is because Michael Moyer has worked with me for over 25 years, and Carol and I have one of Martinez’ paintings. Sam and Eddie are friends.

A recent article in Huffington Post titled, “Go Big Or Go Home” offers a profile of the artist’s zooming visibility in the art world-- to a general audience living outside the coastal art enclaves:

Huffingtonpost.com—“Go Big or Go Home: New American Paintings Spotlight, Eddie Martinez” link

The article tracks Martinez' wandering childhood, his erratic, even piecemeal formal art education, and his early efforts with graffiti drawing and spray-painting among the tracks of Boston’s commuter trains. The quick, bold gestural style demanded of these street artists is embedded deeply in Martinez’ work and stands in stark relief to much of the seeming ephemeral subject matter of his canvasses: dishes and glassware, items of clothing, food, tools, appliances. His human figures are often masked or hooded, costumed or clowned; playful children abound. There is a sense of a riot of stuff spilling off the edges of the paintings and drawings. Colors and textures are bold. There is a wild profusion in his work, even in the still lifes (in contrast to the more mannered “still life” photos of the essay that was posted on this blog several weeks ago.)

Martinez explains that:

The still lifes started with a miniature vase that my mom gave me. I collect miniatures—she had miniatures when I was kid. I just had this little inch-and-a-half tall, white and blue traditional looking vase in my studio, and I painted that and I decided to put flowers in it…. Still life was the way to do that because you could just take an object and give it life, and treat the object as a portrait.

“Trophy Plant,” courtesy of ZieherSmith.

In one way, this anecdote is a key to Martinez’ work. There is no grand global vision, no discernible arching theme. His devil is indeed in the details. Martinez celebrates things, the utter diversity of the everyday, the objects we surround ourselves with. Like Matisse and Bonnard, he elevates the quotidian into its own universe. And like another early 20th century French artist, George Rouault, his bold black outlines invest even the simplest object with a sense of dignity.

The “Go Big Or Go Home” challenge of the HuffPost piece comes from a quote that Martinez made when referring to a recent outsized painting of his called “The Feast.” It’s a triptych, 8 by 28 feet, a showstopper at last December’s Basel/Miami Beach art fair. London collector Charles Saatchi immediately grabbed it.

“The Feast,” courtesy of ZieherSmith.

Here is the center panel, which shows figures at a table that's overflowing with food.

Center panel of “The Feast,” courtesy of ZieherSmith.

There are twelve figures in the work. A central one is a Martinez clown. The possible symbolic iconography of this tableau has not escaped Martinez. Interviewer Evan Garza quotes the artist:

It's pretty traditional when we're talking about art history and traditional themes," he tells me while working on the painting in his studio. "This is as traditional as it's going to get... Everyone who looks at it, their immediate reaction is, 'Oh. It's the Last Supper.' I'm trying to stay away from that, but it's pretty difficult. It's kind of not possible," he says laughing. "It's funny because, with people thinking that's what it is, the centermost figure is a clown. Again, which is not intended, but it's pretty awesome.

“The Feast,” detail of Clown, courtesy of ZieherSmith.

Martinez alludes to the fact that many of his paintings document objects found on table tops, not just figurative ones--- but real tables, like the one that resides in his studio and becomes temporary home to any number of odd and canny objects, tschotskes that catch his attention and which he is compelled to paint.

A table at Martinez' apartment, future “models” in waiting.
A table top

“Sasha,” who has a website called beautifuldecay, posted several jpeg photos that Martinez had sent her, paintings that he had done in the summer studio in Hanover, Mass. Two of them are of flowers in pots, a classic still life, but here bursting with animation. The unframed canvasses rest on the studio floor.

The blog newamericanpaintings features several of Martinez' recent work. Of special note are three drawings--- midway in the scroll down the blog. They give clear evidence of the strength of the drawn line that underlie the paintings.

Newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com link

Six Drawings

These drawings are not merely sketches but are, as Martinez insists, independent works. In many ways they are Martinez at his most immediate. When in his company you are aware of the hand ready to fill any available blank surface in front of him. What you and I may sketch as doodles, he makes as art.  Always restless, there’s no end to the drawing. This is not an artist who is likely to paint himself out.

Evan Garza, who wrote the HuffPost piece, visited Martinez in his Greenpoint studio early this year. He posted a series of photos of the artist at work on a painting titled “A Skeleton.” It’s a fascinating “behind the canvas” look at the evolution of a work.

“The Skeleton,” photo by Evan J. Garza.

Newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com link

The tabletop paintings may provide a clue to Martinez ongoing work, even where he may be headed:

What I also like about the table is that it lends itself to abstraction. And some of the tables have become completely abstract in the past. But now I feel like what I'm doing is removing the template of the table and just having what would be inside of that be the whole painting, but without even objects--just the marks loosely representing the object.

The shift between figuration and abstraction no longer seems to be an artist’s career marker as it did for Guston, Diebencorn, or De Kooning; for contemporary artists like George Condo it’s just another mode of expression. (The recent comprehensive MOMA show of the American Abstract Expressionists was both a further canonization of the movement’s seminal position and a simple insertion into an historical context what once was debated with the impassioned fervor of a zealot.) A defining marker of the New York School of the 50s was its intoxication with paint: impastoed, poured, dripped, thrown--- a mad pursuit of getting paint onto the canvas any way imaginable, the canvas itself nothing more than a flat plane to hold the paint, not as the historical window into a literally rendered  reality. Martinez’ painting pays homage to the canvas as surface; especially in the drawings; unworked white space abounds. In the larger paintings the canvas surface evokes the brick and wood walls that he covered in his graffiti/spray paint days.

When I visit a museum show that is a single artist retrospective like last year’s Guggenheim career survey of Kandinsky or even one reflective of an art period movement, such as the Neue Gallerie’s recent Vienna 1900, there is great pleasure in inserting myself into an imagined time and milieu. This is not something you can do in observing the work of a still developing artist—but it does have its own visceral gratification--- a kind of second-hand alignment with the creative process. Eddie Martinez, as well as his pal Wes Lang (who recently had a working "occupancy" at the Chateau Marmont), is representative of a new energy in American painting, an energy that is growing out of the ashes of late 20th century conceptual and minimalist bonfires. It’s exciting to watch such a career rise in front of you.

Next week: The Met's "Mourners" make a pilgrimage to Los Angeles.



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