Four-Twenty: Chris Martin's »Cool Drink on a Hot Day«
It’s undeniable that Chris Martin’s paintings resemble »outsider art«. Yet I like them not for being intuitive, or spiritual, or liberated from convention – although they are all these things – but because they are affectionate. They are affectionate for the sort of cultural detritus that many might dismiss as kitsch: Bob-Marley-T-shirt-brand rastafarianism, glitter, psychedelia, Abstract Expressionism, and Bob Dylan. In his ongoing investigation of myth, mortality, and memory, Martin manages to re-humanize people or movements that have become throwaway cultural signifiers. Don’t be fooled: affection isn’t the same as amateurism (Martin’s a pro), but it does rely on an uncynical pursuit of cultural common ground.
The standout painting at Martin’s show Cool Drink on a Hot Day might be his homage to Amy Winehouse: a brushstroke portrait of the singer’s head with an upsidedown grayscale photograph of a forest where her face should be (Portrait of Amy Winehouse, 2011–12). She is set against Marley’s trademark red, yellow, and green stripes – a pointed pairing of personas more than of musical genres. Back in 2006, five years before Winehouse’s death by alcohol poisoning, Martin made A Painting For the Protection of Amy Winehouse, a response to her developing addictions that is spooky in hindsight. After Winehouse died, he made a series of paintings in her honor. Portrait of Amy Winehouse is not a moralistic statement on the cycle of fame and self-destruction; it’s a lament for a lost person.
Most of the twenty-three paintings in the show have objects or photos glued onto the surface, and some have holes cut from the canvas. These do not come across as calculated subversions of the painting’s flatness (or its archival qualities) but rather splitsecond decisions made for fun – if at some points the sloppiness is so over-the-top as to seem forced. Though the most noticeable figuration represents people, there are also chickens, parrots, mushrooms, and frogs. The catalog calls this nature/culture conglomeration »New Romanticism«, but it struck me as more like plain old psychedelia – the kind of surreal and celebratory expression of nature that, despite (or because of ) its recognizable hippie-kitsch value, can sometimes allow truly weird forms to emerge.
For instance, the bizarre Pond (2009) is a painting of the sky’s reflection in a pond surrounded by grass. Its surface is glued with stuffed cloth lumps painted as frogs – plus picture-book illustrations of songbirds and a crashing helicopter, clumps of mossy fuzz, dirty smears, and several tiny plastic frogs in red bow ties. For all the attempts at innovation one encounters in galleries, such a frown-inducingly weird art object is hard to come by these days. Perhaps Martin’s work accomplishes this weirdness because it is so unabashedly literal. For Jam Session (2013), photos of famous musicians have been slapped on a sparkly canvas sky to signify actual shooting stars; Four Twenty (2012–13) consists of only the numbers »420« spelled out (in glitter) – about the most straightforward reference to stoner culture you can find after Bob Marley.
Another literal – call it »transparent« if you like – gesture is the inclusion of dates in the corner of many works, recording their years of creation. But this numbered WYSIWYG cataloging also draws attention to how hard it would otherwise be to place the paintings in time; they are so genre-unspecific and their content so ubiquitous that most could have been made at any point over the past forty years. By honing in on »generational« figures, Martin manages to at once lend them specificity and allow them to transcend their particular circumstances, likewise transcending historical boundaries of form.
Martin, now sixty, has said that he never reads books about art; he only looks at paintings and pictures of paintings. Either this isn’t strictly true or he’s absorbed an arthistorical understanding through imagery so thoroughly as to expertly collapse it. I never thought I’d say this phrase, but if he can do kitsch and cliché, I can too: these paintings by Chris Martin are timeless.
Chris Martin »Cool Drink on a Hot Day«, KOW, Berlin