By Adam Rozan
Arts & Culture
A large ochre insect, possibly a praying mantis, hovers on a man’s forehead, perched like a church hat or crown. Over-sized antennae form hypnotic inward circles over his face. The insect’s crosshatched body is drawn as if carved from wood. The man, whose features echo the artist’s, has a message scribbled across his lips: “Starbucks Coffee.” A craving for a latte? A statement of contempt? A voice of advertisement? The artwork of John Martin introduces much, but often leaves more unanswered.
Martin, who was born in 1963 in Marks, Mississippi, is a featured artist at Creative Growth, an Oakland organization serving adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. His work often resembles a still life of sorts, but one in which realities are crossed; his subjects, everyday objects and people, morph into a series of symbols for the viewer to decipher. Martin culls not only his inspiration, but also his materials, from the area surrounding his Oakland studio. Scraps of wood are layered with paint, clothing is stitched together to make canvases, meticulous drawings in sharpie and oil pastel cover newsprint and old phone books. Martin paints with a heavy hand, laying color in thick solids, brights and darks mixing to create a palate Warhol would have appreciated.
Visiting Martin’s shared studio and gallery space, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of his works can be seen, is a bit like being inside a pinball machine — your eye ricocheting around the room with increasing velocity. Seeing so many works at once should be daunting, tiring and a struggle to consume. But, in fact, it’s the opposite. To see Martin’s works together is an opportunity to discover a world that is not the same as ours: a place in which mundane objects and situations become fantastical, if not magical.
It’s doubtful that Martin has ever studied the work of Claes Oldenburg, yet there is an unmistakable kinship between the artists. Oldenburg, famous for his giant clothespins and hamburgers, possessed a similar genius for making his work accessible to viewers. Both artists have a tendency toward creating fictionalized storylines from everyday subjects. In Martin’s hands, mundane objects like Zippo lighters, wrenches and sharks are combined into a menagerie of outrageous juxtapositions, describing the world in a way that only Martin can.
Martin is an artist whose work is not easily labeled or that neatly fits into a genre. But there is a beautiful nakedness to his work, an honesty that surrounds everything he depicts. As an artist, his world is limited by his obsessions — tools, people, animals, foods. Despite such narrow focus, or perhaps because of it, he has found a marathoner’s approach in his dedication to his subjects. Martin of the alligators. Martin of the pick-up trucks. Martin of the fried chicken. The power of John Martin’s work lies in replicating and recreating these ordinary objects and creating new storylines for them — ones that are beautiful, even poetic.