The Houston-based Chicano artist, educator and performer Gabriel Martinez (b. 1973) digs into the relationship between art, public space and collective memory in order to uncover lost social histories. Over the last 15 years, Martinez has established a set of ongoing gestures based on his interactions with American cities, including urban guerrilla interventions, gathering and repurposing street debris and re-appropriations of public semiotic codes. Martinez understands the relationship between art and public spaces not from the standpoint of an integration with architecture and the landscape, but in a more radical if precarious, civic sense of art in the public interest. Wandering through the narrow shoulders of car-centric cities, Martinez operates as a gleaner in a wasteland, rummaging through glass, bricks, trash and signage. The public artist becomes a rag picker of signs and refuse.
Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely is the first museum solo show by Martinez. The exhibition presents a series of ongoing projects as well as new commissioned work specifically produced for the Blaffer galleries. Martinez starts from the defining signifiers of contemporary cities: lots, roads, cars and debris. Scavenging material histories, the artist composes metonyms of a socio-political landscape in a state of entropy. Populated by oil rags, car glass, brick dust, trash, street names, park signs, and interstate shields and adopting geometric patterns and structures, the museum galleries recall a collection of Modernist abstraction produced from salvage.
A decade ago, Martinez started two ongoing scavenging interventions in different public spaces in Houston. Ghost Trash is a performance work consisting of the duplication of trash found in the streets. Proceeding like a scientist on field trip, Martinez demarcates a zone, collects all the trash located in that area, produces identical objects on white paper and replaces the original trash with his ghostlike doubles. Spectral doppelgängers of cigarette packets, boxes, receipts and other refuse painstakingly crafted by the artist float around Houston unseen. Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely begins with a new iteration of Ghost Trash placed at the top of the museum’s stairs, tracing a white line of objects that follow the architecture.
Around the same time, the artist began a second project: a collection of shards of laminated glass from shattered car windows. At the beginning, the artist rearranged the glass where he found it into square shapes that he abandoned, allowing the glass to be scattered by pedestrians. At Blaffer, Martinez has expanded this ongoing project into an installation, creating a carpet-like floor work out his collection of shard. The piece consists of a series of rectangles made from car glass of different sizes displayed in rows. Accounting for the process of recollection, each rectangle of car glass in the floor piece contains the exact amount of material collected by the artist at a precise time and place. Alongside the anonymous car glass, Martinez also collected public markers such as street names. The record of the street names where the artist found the shards is rendered barely legible on a set of white vinyl stickers distributed around the gallery walls.
Martinez’s interrogation of the entropic forces at work in cityscapes, such as natural disintegration, crime and vandalism, or simple negligence, continues with a project based on a terracotta brick that he found in Chicago. As the minimal unit of a building, an isolated brick found in the street is a condensed metonym of a ruin. Displaced bricks are the resilient leftovers from the collapse. Following the logic of disintegration, Martinez’s project takes urban entropy to its conclusion. The artist takes the brick to his studio and pulverizes it until only a layer of rusty dust is left. Using the brick as medium, Martinez applies the dust without any binder to a raw canvas until he runs out of material. Since the color of the brick dust is similar to that of the thread of canvas, only a tenuous, almost blurry halo disappearing towards the edges is perceptible. The painting becomes one unit of material social history.
A related project based on American cartoonist George Herriman’s 1910s newspaper comic strip Krazy Kat is on view next to the brick dust painting. Herriman’s strip focuses on the curious relationship between a guileless, carefree and simple-minded cat named Krazy of indeterminate gender and a short-tempered mouse named Ignatz. Krazy nurses an unrequited love for the mouse. However, Ignatz despises Krazy and constantly schemes to throw bricks at Krazy’s head, which Krazy interprets as a sign of affection. Martinez’s project involves the accumulation of two of newspaper comic strips by Herriman. Removing everything from the strips except for the flying bricks and the onomatopoeic sounds of the strikes, Martinez creates a record of the exponentially increasing of bricks thrown to the cat. Printed in tabloid-size newsprint paper, the prints are installed in a grid.
In 2012, Martinez produced and installed three park signs in areas of private and public land in Houston. Constructed to mimic national park signage, the three park signs read Angela Davis Park, Ricardo Flores Magon Memorial Park and Upton Sinclair Park. Dedicated to radical political figures, Martinez’s park signs trespassed onto private and public property to reimagine the space beyond its designated function. Titled Welcome to… (2012), his intervention sought to reconsider how space is used, produced and controlled. Examining the dynamics of public spaces such as the street, the lot and the park, the artist explores the often-unnoticed structures that regulate our social behavior as they are opened up for contestation and potential change. Through those often-invisible gestures, he suggests alternative uses and interpretations that hint at social and political undercurrents. Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely includes documentation of the park signs. On view outside of the galleries, a new sign has been commissioned specifically for the exhibition.
Additionally, two bodies of work deriving from the ubiquitous car are on view in the galleries. First, a group of oil rags that have been stitched together to create a large rectangular shape. Martinez saved some of those square reddish-pink type of rags from his days working at his stepfather’s gas station. The rags have been washed many times, losing some of their color, however, the oil and other car fluids have seeped deeply into the thread, leaving barely visible traces. Second, as part of his ongoing research on the relationship between city design and war strategy, Martinez has created three large-scale interstate shields on mirrored stainless steel. The planning and implementation of interstate highways was part of a military plan to protect strategic industries from aerial bombardment. Martinez has removed the color code, numbers and letters, returning the shield in a tongue-and-cheek manner to its ancient function as a tool of battle.
The title of the exhibition comes from “Musee des Beaux Arts,” a 1940 poem by W. H. Auden inspired by The Fall of Icarus, a 16th century painting by Pieter Brueghel The Elder located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. In Brueghel’s painting, the ill-fated Icarus — a Greek mythological figure often used as a metaphor for human pride and ambition — falls to his death into the sea, attracting little notice from the peasants working in the immediate vicinity. Auden’s poem is a meditation on the tendency for daily life to continue on its routine course even in the presence of tragedy and sorrow. “About suffering they were never wrong,/The old Masters,” writes Auden. “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster.”
Gabriel Martinez (b. 1973 Alamogordo, New Mexico) graduated with an MFA from Columbia University and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. He has been an artist-in-residence at Project Row Houses and a CORE Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. His work has been exhibited recently at David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence, the Byzantine Chapel at The Menil Collection, the Station Museum, Artpace in San Antonio, Galveston Arts Residency, Rice University Media Center, and the Houston Museum of African American Culture. He is the founding member and director of Alabama Song, an alternative art space in Houston. Additionally, Martinez teaches interdisciplinary art seminars at the University of Houston.
Gabriel Martinez: Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely is organized by Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston’s Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts. This presentation is made possible thanks to the generous support from Ingrid Arneberg, Kristen & David Buck. Additional exhibition and program funding is provided by the Cecil Amelia Blaffer von Furstenberg Endowment for Exhibitions and Programs, The Houston Endowment, Inc., The City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, The George and Mary Josephine Hamman Foundation, The Sarah C. Morian Endowment, Jo and Jim Furr Exhibition Endowment at Blaffer Art Museum and Blaffer Art Museum’s Advisory Board Members.
Thursday, November 2, 2017 from 6:30-8 p.m. Gabriel Martinez will speak about the ideas behind the exhibition at Blaffer Art Museum.