In his studio, Chris Martin and two aides of his inspect a tall, slanted pile of his already-completed, wall-sized paintings.
Each of the canvases is as tall as the roof and as wide as the walls, and sometimes they reach thirty feet in height. It takes all three of them to lift and move the pieces. After they are finished, he is surrounded by a room of eye-catching, expansive visuals and illuminated by the skylight above.
Martin giggles as he notices the aged works of art that have been shut away for a long time, some of which he can’t even remember creating. He is resting on a set of conga drums that he plays when he lectures to art students.
He frequently gives classes and had been an art therapist for a long time, yet his fondness for painting appears to be in spite of his aversion for modern art institutions.
His art is a reflection of this attitude: it does not worry about the latest fashion or stylistic uniformity or edicts about artwork, and its most obvious influences are from artists outside of the art realm–so-called grassroots creatives.
Martin creates art without the constraints of post-modernism, with a direct and honest approach.
He pays tribute to influential people in his life, including Harry Smith, Paul Thek, Alfred Jensen, Bill Jensen and James Brown, by writing their names on his work. Paintings, records, slices of bread, pillows, aluminum foil and glitter are all materials that he works with. His compositions range from intricate and detailed to simple and powerful, often taking up to two decades to finish.
The canvases he produces can be of different sizes, textures and colours, but he always seems to create them through a process of exploration.
Examining the artworks, a selection of art books from Dieter Roth, and a collection of Martin’s photographs, he suggested that we cancel the interview as he felt a bit under the weather and feared his chat about the paintings might damage them.
We discussed other matters for a moment and then decided to proceed with the interview in spite of his misgivings.
Ross Simonini’s words: It is essential to recognize the importance of being able to express yourself in order to avoid feeling stuck or unfulfilled. Being able to communicate your thoughts, feelings and experiences is a fundamental right that should not be taken lightly.
When talking about your artwork, the word spirituality is often used and I’m interested to know if you concur with that association.
According to Chris Martin, the concept of spirit stems from the Latin word spiritu, which translates to “breath”.
He believes that spirituality is related to breath and life force, and is an idea that has been embraced by many ancient cultures. However, in today’s Western art world, spirituality is seen as somewhat suspect, and is not necessarily linked to religious beliefs.
It has been suggested by some that the art world has many traits that make it comparable to religion. This includes having a sense of community, a language exclusive to them that speaks about something intangible, and an admiration of certain symbols within the art.
CM believes that the word spirituality can be misleading. Instead, they suggest that, by engaging with difficult questions of what is real, one can uncover something mysterious and “spooky”.
They don’t necessarily like the word spirituality, but they are open to using it. Furthermore, they disagree with the idea that artists take drugs to add something “crazy” to reality.
Instead, they encourage us to investigate what we think is real and to come back to our community with our own perspective. Joseph Beuys is an example of someone who has done this.
BLVR: What is the connection between your work and the concept of reality?
CM: That’s a really intriguing inquiry. As an artist, it can be difficult to ascertain what is true. Therefore, there is a journey of exploration to uncover something that has an effect on us in a more profound way. This is why artistry is such a captivating venture. In the last collection of bigger pieces we were examining, I was taking pages of photographs from an astrophysics book and affixing them to the artwork. These physicists are folks who walk around in suits and ties and large glasses. We don’t consider them as wild creators, yet if you take a look at anything regarding what physics states is factual, what the researchers say is real–
BLVR commented that the situation was highly unbelievable.
CM: In the present day, these scientists, who are tenured professors at MIT, are not under the influence of any substances. They are equipped with powerful computer programs and have a great amount of knowledge and logical reasoning for understanding the data of particles and atoms. Even basic physics has shown that life is composed of electrical and spinning energy, and that is quite a mystical concept in itself! [ Laughs ]
I was recently discussing the way the Museum of Modern Art used to display Joseph Beuys’ work. What many people don’t realize is that Beuys was a religious and mystical figure. Most people simply look to him for his work in expanding sculpture. But I find it frustrating how institutions ignore Mondrian and Beuys’ spiritual aspects. They prefer to focus on how cubism turned into abstract painting, which is really dull. It’s important to note that Mondrian had an ongoing spiritual practice searching for balance in energy.
In the artwork of his, BLVR depicted it.
In the artwork of CM we can see it!
BLVR: It appears Kandinsky had a comparable method.
CM mentioned that Kandinsky had been looking into shamanism in Vologda before returning and producing paintings that depicted imagery of riders leaping over individuals, which was a representation of shamanic dream-travel. However, the Museum of Modern Art’s interpretation of his work is that it was the originator of abstraction.
BLVR: What could be the rationale behind art being presented in an official manner by institutions?
CM: They typically don’t talk about life, purpose, or depth, which is an incredibly difficult thing to discuss. They focus on a formal story of the advancement of art and that concept of flatness–the idea that painting is a specialized craft and contemporary painting is refining the regulations of painting. However, what we are concerned about is the fact that the planet is getting hotter, species are vanishing, wars are taking place, and there are stunning women walking down the street in Brooklyn, as well as food and flowers. We care about life. I’m falling in love! I just saw the most attractive guy ever! I enjoy pine trees! This is what we care about. That’s why art is so intriguing–if it helps us, as human beings, to be closer to life and to the deeper aspects of life. Who cares about whether it’s painting about painting and the flatness or if it’s in F sharp?! These are the mechanics of art forms. Institutions stress language. I don’t care about language, unless it helps me to look at something that’s meaningful and causes us to have some kind of emotional response.
BLVR remarked that, although there were books on art, filled with essays about the art in each, the speaker stated they were not concerned with language.
CM: I never read the essays; I just look at the pictures. [Laughs] It only makes me angry when I think about it. Even here, our conversation is revolving around painting. We should just be painting and let the other activities like dancing, sex, massage, showering take over instead of talking about painting so much. The thing that nobody gets to, is the part that we all love about painting. I have a lot of books about art, and I’m always curious to see paintings. I find all sorts of painting interesting; from those in barbershops to those from kids. In conclusion, I love paintings.
BLVR: Are you more focused on painting rather than art in general?
CM: Yeah, it’s just a personal thing. When I was a kid, I had a great interest in painting. It’s a bit embarrassing, really, since there is so much visual technology around nowadays, and painting is an ancient, ancient thing. It’s not like it is essential, but it is something that I personally have a great love for. One gets attached to certain activities, and painting is one of them for me.
BLVR: Do you remain with them?
Yes, you indeed do.
BLVR: Is it possible for you to pursue a career in filmmaking at this moment?
CM: As an artist, and as a human being, I think about the notion of freedom and what that means. I’m aware of the things I want to do, like making paintings and films, but I’m also aware that I don’t have the time to do them. I work with photography, I make sculptures and I used to do performances, but I’m a terrible singer. I’m struck by the idea that I’m free to do whatever I want, and yet I feel compelled to do certain things, like the ones I mentioned. I remember when I was young, there was a kid, Brad Ferris, who could draw cartoons so beautifully: it was like a magical thing to watch. I never could do that, and I was never a good musician either, or a pro football player as I wanted to, since I’m too skinny. So, in the end, I’m free to do anything, but I find myself feeling pulled to what I’m able to do.
In the US, the notion of freedom can give us the impression that we can do whatever we want, like get into someone’s SUV and take their partner. However, that isn’t really about freedom. It’s about power. As an artist, I must discover what ingredients I must work with to find true liberation. Being a painter is something that I do and sometimes I’m content with that and other times it’s just something I must accept.
BLVR: I heard that you produce many artworks. I remember you once saying that you usually create around eighty pieces in a single season.
I used to be someone that would work a lot and do a lot of different things. And I was used to painting, and then painting over it, and then painting over it again, and so on. When I first came to New York, I believed that this was a sign of being a great abstract expressionist, and therefore I kept doing this. But then I eventually gave myself permission to paint every idea that I had, instead of covering up the old ones. It was hard to not destroy those paintings that were embarrassing or strange, so I taught myself to leave them and work on different ones. People saw me as an abstract painter, but I had been making interesting figurative ones as well, which were not shown. I remember talking to Richard Tuttle and he was adamant about wanting to show a good representation of my work, not just the good ones.
BLVR: From favorable to unfavorable.
CM discussed that, like a scientist, they had to display the results from their last few months, regardless of whether they were good or bad. He emphasized the importance of not just demonstrating the positive results, but also revealing the negative ones.
BLVR: Do you perform that action?
CM: I have indeed been attempting to do that. However, when it comes to connecting with art dealers and those who run galleries, they typically aren’t very enthusiastic. [ Laughs ] They have certain criteria for what is considered to be good quality… [ Coughs ] Shall we move on to the next question? [ Laughs ]
BLVR: How would you define “bad” or “unsuccessful”?
CM: That’s a great inquiry to explore, as an artist. I’ve noticed some times when I try to make something bad, the energy around it is actually exciting. The assumption is that creators understand their craft, and have an excellent sense of taste, distinguishing good from bad. Many American art schools operate on the concept of developing critical thinking, analyzing why one piece is not as good as another due to the use of certain colors or linear qualities. Yet, I don’t think this necessarily yields better art. We might not always be able to tell the difference between a good work and a bad one. For instance, I took photographs of some paintings I did in the 80s, destroyed them, and then re-painted the same piece in the 90s and then destroyed them once again. However, some of the paintings I had made in the 80s were okay, and I should have left them alone.
However, the Earth is facing considerable issues. So one must ask: how are we, as painters, responding to this? Are we simply striving to create “good paintings”? Why not focus on creating something raw and disconcerting that makes us question what it is? That could prove more beneficial than carefully crafted abstract works.
Children from the age of seven to ten in the United States are truly talented artists, yet their works are rarely appreciated. Popular culture has a tendency to disregard art by claiming “My kid can do that.” Though this may be true, they may not be able to produce something of the same caliber. We can observe this wild energy and freedom in paintings we find on the street, or even those made by elephants. Can we really say that an MFA from Yale is necessary when an elephant can make an excellent painting? Maybe it’s time to start allowing elephants to attend graduate school.
BLVR: Are you attempting to bypass your knowledge as an artist to get to a more immature or animalistic type of illustration?
CM mentioned that there are a variety of ways to create art. De Kooning’s drawings done with eyes closed were mentioned as an example. It was then mentioned that someone was known to set an alarm for a few hours in the morning and he would start drawing without being fully awake. Additionally, it was suggested that drugs, caffeine, or going without food could be used as a creative method. Miro’s series of drawings, the Constellations, were said to have been created while he was fasting and this was stated as a hard-core approach.
BLVR: What have you attempted?
CM remarked, laughing, that he had tried every possible approach. He mentioned that he had watched a movie about Miles Davis the night before, in which one of his sidemen said that Davis had approached him and, in a raspy voice, asked, “You know why I don’t play ballads anymore, don’t ya?” The sideman replied that he did not know the answer, to which Davis responded, “᾽Cause I love to do it.” CM went on to explain that, as an artist, one must challenge oneself to keep the work fresh and not just do the things one is “good at.” He then shared a quote from de Kooning, in which someone asked him how he felt when younger painters were copying his style, to which de Kooning responded, “Well, they can make the good de Koonings but only I can make the bad ones.”
The fleeting views of what we can see and experience can often slip away from us. We may not be able to capture them for eternity, but we can take away the memory of what we felt in that moment.
BLVR: Do you think cushions or loaves of bread have a distinct significance when featured in a work of art, or is the decision to incorporate them based purely on instinct?
CM stated that there was an intriguing way of questioning the significance or instinctual nature of the statement. This brought to mind the classic American dichotomy that is so prevalent.
BLVR: So, what I’m asking is, are the materials imbued with any level of significance?
CM: Indeed. The significant meaning is the genuine significance. I’m teasing you a bit here, Ross.
BLVR: That is correct.
CM: Does it have a tangible significance or is it just a feeling?
BLVR laughed in amusement.
CM: There’s a humorous anecdote from Robert Creeley, the poet, which involves him giving a reading in Iowa and someone asking him whether the poem he read was real or made-up. This story resonates with me, as it conveys the notion that artists have particular ideas which they wish to express through their artwork; these ideas are often sourced from literature, theories, or beliefs surrounding social justice, etc.
BLVR: It seems that quite a few individuals do that, correct?
CM: Those unfortunate people.
BLVR let out a chuckle.
CM posited that if they create an artwork of a pillow and associate it with dreaming or their grandmother, and someone else views it and remembers a moment from freshman year related to someone else, the meaning of the painting would still be there.
BLVR: That’s how you’ve interpreted it. I was actually referring to your own individual–
The interpretation of CM’s statement is that its meaning is derived from any interpretation of it.
BLVR: So, if you’re painting and you have a pillow and a piece of bread both within arm’s reach, equidistant, is there any reason why you’d pick one or the other? Or is the point irrelevant? Is there no purpose in selecting the bread, the photograph of the physicist, or the pillow? Is it all just stuff? Are you intentional in your actions?
CM: But if I answer this question, how can I be sure that I’m not exaggerating or just pretending? Take a painting for instance. You might have initially thought to use orange for it, but then you end up using pink. This means that I have ideas in my head, but I’m not always successful with them. I will often get things wrong or combine them incorrectly. I could have planned to paint something profound, like a skull, but it ended up looking silly and ended up being a painting about Mr. Magoo. To me, it is important to keep an open mind when it comes to the creative process, so that I’m not sure of the meaning behind the images I create. When I put a group of photographs together in a painting, I tell myself a story. It might start with a galaxy, then a frog, a mushroom and then my mother. If I’m successful, then the objects will have a reality that is greater than anything I could have planned.
When I arrived in New York City in the mid-1970s, there was a lot of energy around abstract painting and people attempting to take away its extraneous meaning. Many people were attempting to create canvases that were as close as possible to a platonic ideal. If someone were to look at a piece of artwork and say it resembled a landscape, it was considered a failure, as it was not deemed avant-garde enough. However, I think the real masters, like de Kooning, continuously expanded their formal vocabulary to encompass every kind of concept. It was like a shoulder, or a breast, or a light on the grass, or water, and it was about the beauty of the everyday. He called it “slipping glimpses”, when something moves you and you see the light on the sidewalk or the ripples at Amsterdam or the little tune your mother used to sing. It all could be included. Pure abstract painting doesn’t exist, and even if it did, I am not sure anyone would want it.
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