In a world that rewards derivative creation, it's rare to walk into a gallery and encounter work influenced enough by past masters and movements to indicate the artist actually knows something about her predecessors, but also stands so uniquely stamped with the artist's personality that pinpointing from where she derived this influence is befuddling. You can call it artistic déjà vu, not to be confused with the deflating realization you actually have seen the work before (probably at LACMA or the Met) because the artist is just one in a sea of mimics. There's also something to be said about style, in general; whereas many artists interpret “style” as creating the same image over and over again, it takes a truly invigorating and fresh image to make this repetition work—Keith Haring, for example.
Most artists who attempt this repetition merely produce endless echoes in varying hues with no new content, mistaking signature for style. Picasso's “style” changed repeatedly over his lifetime, of course, and it's an apt reference when it comes to the abstractions of Colombian-born painter (and now sculptor) America Martin. The magnetic pull of Martin's work is authentic, generated by both her ability to express a unique gesture that speaks to a universal truth (thus, we recognize it instantly) and her exceptional skill at rendering that truth via the human form in bold, compelling movement, creating a stylistic link among all of her work without the feeling she's phoning it in or stuck in a loop.
In her third solo show at the JoAnne Artman Gallery, “Exuberance,” the young artist electrifies the walls with a collection of figurative-based paintings that reveal influences of abstract expressionism, Pop Art and her South American heritage, all rolled into a refreshing exhibition of modernism filtered through ethnic and urban points of view. Whether the scene is of city dwellers engaged in metropolitan frenzy or women dancing in a forest, all of her characters come from the same world, though they experience it differently.
Street Music has the particular feel of Latino urban life, with city musicians blowing orange trumpets and plucking pregnant basses in a vibrant scene of melody, with spouting fire hydrants you can almost hear. Similarly, Card Players presents two fedora-sporting gamblers and their Marlon Brando-like biker-capped compadre engaged in a concentrated game—their stoic poker faces exposed by aqua and violet blocks of color on the two who are most likely losing, aggressive orange on the sunglasses-wearing pal who's taking home the pot. Conversely, House By the Sea envelopes us in a tranquil moment, as a nude woman reclines across the full length of the horizontal canvas in muted sage while soft ripples flow through the pale-blue ocean behind her and, far in the background, a solitary, simple house awaits her return. This is Zen.
Portraits are also in abundance. Girl With Pencils presents a knobby-kneed, chunky-armed innocent somberly awaiting your pennies, and Bright Day is a striking female nude in orange outlined in lemon-peel yellow, simply crossing her legs and absorbing the sun into her radiant skin. The “odd man out,” so to speak, is also one of the most entertaining: Martin deviates from her usual human fare in Sea Dog to focus on a sweet-faced, gray canine, outlined in white and yellow and blocked in with cerulean—a most pleasing nod to puppy adoration. Also of note are her groupings, the most impressive being Woman In the Woods, an immense abstraction of females engaged in ritual and dancing that's so dynamic it's a wonder they don't promenade right off the canvas.
Color is essential in Martin's work, and she uses it sparingly yet boldly, much like a subconscious indicator of the emotions and personality of the people we meet. Line is also key—thick, heavy strokes that are never subtle, no matter the content or sentiment, framing features within faces and minutiae within landscapes. Most powerful, perhaps, is Martin's choice of subject, which, filtered through her unique lens, is rendered in such a way that it creates a story within each canvas; this work is alive, she seems to be saying, and it wants your attention. She has it.
This review appeared in print as “Accept No Substitutes: America Martin at the JoAnne Artman Gallery is the real deal.”