I am a verb. I traded the future of humans for a caramel Frappuccino, there will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined. So reads the press release for Daniel Martinez’s solo exhibition at Roberts & Tilton, I am a verb. This is the artist’s first show at the gallery which began representing him earlier this year.
Martinez has made a name for himself over the years with his jarring imagery (like a self-portrait of him spilling his own guts) that delivers powerful political messages (not that he’d call it that, his mantra is “everything is political”). His work transcends genre and media, as he moves swiftly from painting to photography to installation and more. Some of his more famous works deal with politics, religion, identity, and the body. In many ways I feel like I got exactly what I expected from this show, meaning that there were no surprises and the overall quality was great.
The first piece seen when walking into the gallery is a tape recorder strapped to a bullhorn. It’s held up by a clear plastic rod, which I mostly found confusing. From the bullhorn came the sounds of protest in a Middle Eastern language. The clean, empty, and cold space of the gallery was at once filled with chaos, as if a person was standing there crying out to a mob through that megaphone. The riot shield by this installation also helps in creating an atmosphere of political unrest. I was no longer in an art gallery, I was in a battle zone.
Next is a piece that asks the question “who killed liberty?” and takes the Statue of Liberty and literally flips it on its side and crashes it through a wall. A mirror attached to the base of the statue may imply that the viewer is to blame for the death; however from my experience viewing Martinez’s part work, I don’t think he’d make such an obvious gesture. On the other side of the wall is the top half of the statue and neon signs that read We Buy Gold and Facial Waxing. It seems like liberty is just another commodity being bought and sold. Something about the sculpture does seem very tragic.
Commanding the majority of the gallery space is A Story for Tomorrow in 4 Chapters, Dostoevsky Loved the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Muhammad Ali and Dandelions, Lick my hunch!, consisting of four large scale photographs. Depicted in the photos is the artist (or at least I’m assuming it’s him, knowing his history of self-portraiture) sometimes wearing an oversized head, sometimes wearing a Papal mitre, but in both cases praying on a mat and with a grotesque hunchback. It grows out of him like a cancerous tumor. It infests the body like a disease. Perhaps it was this illness that killed liberty. The disease threatens our tomorrow, and the praying figure is the martyr that will save us.
So what narrative is this exhibition really weaving? Something about religion, something about politics, probably something about consumerism, that much is easy to see. But Martinez’s work is not about preachy didacticism. What makes his work intriguing is the codes and references embedded in elegant form. Despite featuring such an ugly subject, there is still some beauty about his photographs. It’s difficult not to get drawn in by the huge prints. The size of the photos make the man in them larger-than-life, and the religious crown on his head makes him just a little bit holy. Yet the photos sit framed on the floor leaning against the wall, the mutated being is not worthy if being elevated. Outside, two neon signs hang by the entrance, and it wasn’t until I saw the other neon signs inside that I remembered I wasn’t actually walking into a bail bonds. It’s the small details like this that really make you think about the work. If an art show can leave me wanting to learn more, then I consider it a pretty successful art show. I left the gallery craving a caramel Frappuccino, curious about Dostoevsky, and a bit disappointed in the lack of blood that had been promised.