Edmonds-based painter James Martin occupies a unique position in the world of Northwest art. Widely exhibited and discussed early in his career, his reputation and prices have yet to recover from the death of his first art dealer in 1966. Nonetheless, Martin has continued to pour out his trademark zany images unabated, and his current show in Pioneer Square contains no less than 105 paintings, most done in the last year. Joining us with his comments on this true Northwest original is our art critic, Gary Faigin.
To be honest, I have not reviewed a Martin show up until now because I was put off by his work. I found it messy, awkward, and repetitive, and I had trouble getting past its cheapness – both in the materials that the artist chooses to use (mottled-looking gouache painted on wrinkled, non-archival Kraft paper), and in the rock-bottom prices that it sells for. In the current show, there are prices as low as $650 for a finished work, which is a far lower price than any other artist of similar seniority. Is the gallery hedging its bets by promoting Martin as a latter-day Northwest master, but keeping his prices low because people might resist paying more for such slapdash-looking work? In an art world where money is a major preoccupation of both sellers and buyers, it is hard not to tie cost to value, as arbitrary as that relationship might sometimes be.
However, after reading up on Martin, it seems more likely that the key to the technique/price/value conundrum is the artist himself, whose attitude towards such matters as degree of finish, longevity, and the economics of the art marketplace is defiantly casual, even dismissive. He seems to have made the conscious choice to work small (15” x 20” is about average), quick, and cheap as a way of being an Artist Outside the Art World, an implicit criticism of those on the inside who are snobbish, precious, and over-sophisticated, not to mention money-grubbing.
It is hard to imagine any artist who would look good with so many rapid-fire, unedited pictures on view in one place at one time. Of the hundred-odd images in the show, I would immediately cut out at least thirty, particularly the nearly identical compositions with a beat-up car in profile and an interchangeable cast of characters taking exactly the same poses. Sure it’s amusing to see Christ acting the part of a grease-pit mechanic (along with the artist in a Mickey Mouse cap at the other end of the car), but it loses something when a nearby picture simply swaps him out for a naked girl. Can such loaded images really be shuffled around that easily, like so many Tarot cards? I’d also edit out several of the School of Chagall floating figure groups, remove a few lions, and cull several still lives and pianos.
Of the dozens of works that would remain on view after my thinning, we’d still be left with a very mixed bag: full of intriguing parts, but often perplexing in overall effect. What I like the best about Martin is his uninhibited energy and his narrative ambitions - he takes on very interesting subject matter, but his reach frequently outpaces his grasp.
Take the painting "On the Steps of La Californie," for example. It’s an homage to the two greatest masters of Spanish painting, Velazquez and Picasso. Martin’s picture is vaguely similar in composition and palette to Picasso’s painting of the interior of "La Californie,"his Cannes studio, but here we’re on the outside rather than the inside. Flitting about is a cast of characters drawn from "Las Meninas," and Picasso’s late-career takeoff on "Las Meninas." Between Velazquez’s royal dwarf and Picasso’s version of the Princess stands the sketchy figure of a Spanish nun. Most intriguingly, reaching out of a mysterious void to one side of the studio, we see what looks to be the black-clad arm of Velazquez himself, his empty hand waving at the air, beckoning from beyond.
It’s a sort of a buddy picture, with the artist making it clear that he’s on good terms with his erstwhile predecessors, reinterpreting them in a vaguely expressionist style like Ensor or Chagall, only with much messier paint. Such borrowings, in fact, are a major theme in Martin’s work; the current show contains a version (one of many) of Van Gogh’s room, with the addition of a temptress in a blue dress and a duck, as well as a mystic sky a la Morris Graves, a Mona Lisa, and many more appearances by various characters from Velazquez. But the La Californie painting doesn’t go anywhere with its mélange of styles and references – being buddies isn’t the same as making an interesting point, which here seems to be the fun of bringing dead artists back to life.
I want to like these paintings better than I do. Martin is full of ideas, and he’s willing to try nearly anything. He channels a huge variety of sources – cartoons, modern art, television, literature and music (Siegfried and Proust make an appearance) – and his color is frequently electric. My favorite picture in the show is also the simplest. A self-portrait entitled the "Wooly Award," the artist’s lemon yellow shirt fills most of the picture. Pinned to his enormous chest is a medal with the image of a wooly mammoth, apparently one of the artist’s current preoccupations. Martin himself, with shaggy white hair and bird, looks not at us but off to one side at a robin perched on his shoulder, his lips pursed in something between a whistle and a smile. It’s a picture of a man more comfortable in his imagined world than in ours, a world where he can take on the role of impresario and ringmaster, living vicariously through his animal alter egos and imaginary girlfriends.
Sheila Farr, art critic of the Seattle Times, has been Martin’s main champion in recent years. In 2001 her monograph on the artist, she refers to his work as “deliciously beautiful”. Personally, I’m not able to get through to the beauty past the debris of Martin’s wobbly technique and endless recycling of the same ideas. It’s almost a great story, but not quite, in spite of the avid collectors snapping up dozens of paintings at bargain-basement prices. Someday, a smart curator will cull the gems and shelf the rest, and we’ll all have a great time celebrating the genius of our home-grown hero.