Julia Martin at Julia Martin Gallery through January 27
WORDS Noah Saterstrom
“The artist should call forth all of his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest possible modesty in order to push aside during his work the old clichés that come so readily to his hand and can suffocate the small flower that itself never turns out as one expected. —Henri Matisse
This glimpse into the mind of Matisse, and the implied conflict of his self-directed admonition, came to mind when I was talking with Julia Martin about her newest body of work. For nearly twenty years, she has become known for paintings of imagined female faces. Pleasantly rendered and easy on the eye, these paintings have a solid following; however, that rarely is a good enough reason for an artist to hold course.
Martin speaks plainly about her desire to depart from this creative cul-de-sac and surrender her “old clichés,” as Matisse would have it, for something riskier, meatier, more exploratory.
Most artists are familiar with the aesthetic ruts that can form when gestures or themes are repeated. Even as others respond well to the work, there’s a quiet, private disappointment when you make a piece and there, in relief, are your “default” marks and subjects.
Conceptual artists have devised all kinds of ways to avoid such ruts and propel the work forward; minimalists restrict themselves to absolutes. But Martin is not a conceptual artist. Her approach is warm, confessional, and exposed—qualities that are not easily limited or controlled—without coming off as contrived.
How then did she go about expanding the possibilities in her work? The same way—and with the same success—that she runs her gallery: intuitively. She lost the training wheels and started pedaling. This show looks like her studio practice, wobbling and stabilizing and veering into the bushes and back out again, popping wheelies along the way, with both the dedication and freedom those images imply.
The name of the show—Hypnagogic—is a scientific term referring to the moment between wakefulness and sleep, the liminal space that marks not only a loss of conscious control, but a gain of unconscious creativity. The rational mind clocks out, the dreaming mind clocks in, and things go all big and squirrely.
Hypnagogic includes some figurative paintings, some abstract paintings, and one painting of Martin by someone else over which Martin has painted. The latter embraces a welcome, galvanizing recklessness that was not feasible in her previous work. There is also a squat wooden queen-like figure and a wooden relief reminiscent of an altarpiece. The figurative paintings careen from place to place, like the path of that newly freed bicycle. Some have kinship with her previous work; others are spare and gestural; still others hint at surrealist automatism, while in others, the physicality of the paint seems almost hostile to attempts at depiction. The range of work is destabilizing.
Antoni Tàpies said: “My wish is that we might progressively lose confidence in what we believe and the things we consider stable and secure, in order to remind ourselves of the infinite number of things still waiting to be discovered.” With this show, Martin seems to be publicly accepting the goal of art as being, in essence, an act of discovery.
You are invited to an artist talk with Julia Martin and Noah Saterstrom at Julia Martin Gallery, Thursday, January 18, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The exhibit is on view at the gallery through January 27. For more information, visit www.juliamartingallery.com.