by Luca Fiore
“Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury was asked which celebrities from the past he would like to have a beer with in the pub. The boxer replied: Eric Cantona, Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley. Should they ask me the same, I would choose Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein”. Jason Martin, born in 1970 in Jersey, the largest island in the English Channel, is one of the heavyweights of contemporary abstract painting. The three names he cites, as his own personal artistic pantheon, are also a declaration of poetics. Although, in the early nineties at Goldsmith College in London, the cradle of the Young British Artists generation, the work that insinuated him into the seed of artistic research is a painting by the American artist Robert Ryman. “The all-white painting consisted of five span-wide bands of color, probably made with five uninterrupted brush strokes. They were the trace of a gesture that took place over a period of time, they outlined a time frame within which the color had been spread on the canvas. I liked the idea and started trying to develop it. It was a work on time, after all, and it was about why we are here now”.
Martin’s first works consist of monochromatic oil or acrylic paintings, stretched on surfaces of aluminum, steel or Plexiglas with spatulas or combs that create swirling and hypnotic surfaces. Sometimes they look like the texture of a crazed vinyl record, in which the grooves are no longer concentric, but drawn with voluptuous elegance to produce visual vibrations of mysterious silent music. Black, bright red, metallic blue, white. When touching the color, light enhances the dynamism of the color surface. Over time, his research shifts to the use of pure pigment mixtures, which are applied on modeled panels, in which the exasperated sculptural effect seems to magnify the contortions of matter on a rippled palette of color. In recent years, the artist has also created works in mirroring metal (copper, silver and gold), made through casts of the paintings, in which the material painting becomes a real sculpture.
The latest works, conceived during lockdown, that the artist spent in his studio in the Portuguese countryside, exhibited in the recent exhibition, “Tropicalissimo, at the Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio in Milan, are mainly small-sized paintings, in which he is used more than one color. “It is a series of paintings that are a bit of a synthesis of the paths that I started to follow during the time of the pandemic, in which I worked freely, without the time pressures of the art market”, Martin explains: “I followed a playful and experimental attitude, in an attempt to conquer ground within the sphere of my pictorial language”. Parallel bands of color, spread with a rough spatula, in which the tones blend to form atmospheric shades. From pink to pale pink, then yellow which becomes a soft pistachio green. Or vertical textures of yellow that blend, in the brushstroke, with a soul of red, producing orange halos. Elsewhere, blue and white are mixed. Or green and yellow again. Leaving the narrow circle of the monochromatic world seems to have opened the door to figurative suggestion for the painter. “I feel like a landscape painter disguised as an abstractionist”, he explains with a smile. The masses of color and the composition of the forms lead the viewer’s imagination to reconstruct natural images in his own mind. Sunsets, vegetation, flames, water, ice, fog. “In painting, this is almost inevitable, even when we are in the field of abstraction”, continues Martin: “Leon Battista Alberti already understood this: painting recreates the illusion of depth on the surface. We are used to seeing something that goes beyond the flatness of the canvas. The painting is a threshold where a dialectic between surface and illusion is created. And the challenge is to look through, to see beyond”.
Martin has a very particular way of telling the history of art of the twentieth century: using his body parts. “Artists of the turn of the century painted with their wrist. Braque and Picasso, to create their Cubist paintings, drew signs by articulating the movements with the elbow. De Kooning, with his shoulder, drew even wider brush strokes. Finally, Pollock placed the canvas on the ground and painted with his whole body. Fontana also used gestural language. Yves Klein threw all of himself into the void of the work. Here, I feel part of this club”. Yet, it is the same who recognizes a debt also towards minimalism: “Yes, but it is as if I had found my personal way that combines abstract expressionism, action painting, and art that wanted to eliminate all body traces. It is as if I had filled the empty vase of minimalism”. This seems to be the common thread that binds all the work of Jason Martin who, in hindsight, has significantly evolved in almost thirty years of career: the dialectic between opposites. Abstraction and figuration, expressionism and minimalism, painting and sculpture. “I don’t think that, in an attempt to evolve my language, I will abandon this path, it is the only way I have to say something interesting to develop my own personal pictorial vocabulary”.
But another legacy also weighs on the artist’s shoulders, the one that comes from having participated in Sensation, the exhibition that the collector Charles Saatchi sponsored in 1997 at the Royal Academy in London (later shown also in New York and Berlin) and that consigned the Young British Artists to history. We talk about artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sara Lucas, Jenny Saville, Marc Quinn, the Chapman brothers and others. Jason Martin was among them. “I remember that they hung my paintings upside down… Which, for works like mine, is not a serious problem… If the painting is good, it works the same. It was a great opportunity, but – even if we were more or less all peers (Hirst is five years older than me) – I don’t feel like belonging to it. It’s a story I ended up in without really wanting to”. If those artists were seen as the expression of a return to a shocking realism, it was evident that Martin was not in the game. “It is clear that, from the media point of view, my work could not compete with the shark in formaldehyde. Mine is another way. Although I have a lot of respect for the work of Emin or Lucas, for example. But of that generation, the one I feel closest to is Ian Devenport who was eventually excluded from the Saatchi exhibition”.
Martin’s painting is much quieter, more intimate, than the roaring English art that was successful in those years. And he remembers well his fellows at Goldsmith, all busy finding their own way to create the installations that became popular in the following years. “I was one of the very few to paint”, he explains: “There I met Steve McQueen, the videomaker, now an Oscar-winning director for 12 Years A Slave. He too had started painting”. As in the tradition of abstract painting, even for the English artist his work carries a marked spiritual and meditative dimension. And maybe for the same reason, perhaps, aged 24 he wrote to Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to offer him his works. “He never answered me back. Perhaps because I was too much distant from the minimalist style he favored. But painting is also a spiritual exercise for me. It arises from the need to find my place in the world and, at the same time, to try to leave a trace for when I will be gone. I remember that astronaut from space who covered the Earth from his sight by stretching his thumb in front of his eyes. And he said: all I know is behind my finger. Everything else is unknown to me.”