Stairway to Oscar Martinez
by Egberto Almenas Ph.D.

One of the most vigorous features inherent to contemporary Hispanic artists springs from their reluctance to abandon the wealth of tradition. They have succeeded in rearticulating a faithful vision through highly personalized forms of imaginative expression. Yet for all their revolutionary outbursts and transfusions, they are more resilient and less chancy than they appear at first glance. We might recall, as an example of this paradoxical challenge, the inception and subsequent boom of Modernist plastic thought in Spain. Though nourished from the onset by the Catalonian Renaixença, Gaudí’s Casa Vicens (1878-80) in Barcelona extends its roots far into the peninsula’s Moorish legacy. At our end of the Modern Era, Picasso epitomizes its ultimate dash; but despite a latent sentimentalité française in his approach, as Gertrude Stein observed, he could hardly restrain from his raging españolismo.

Contrasting cultures, likewise, clashed in Latin America only to synthesize at the wake of the twentieth century into new meanings backboned by tradition. The works of Tamayo, Matta, Guayasamín, Lam, Kahlo, Botero, Cuevas and a broad string of others, triumphantly diverge in many ways, but remain bound by the same radical force of a unifying ideo-aesthetic credo amidst ethnic pluralism, transculturation, and renewal.

The latest massive bustle in this respect embraces the South American Diaspora to the United States. Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba have woven uncompromising influences into the social-cultural fabric of North America. In the last decade we have witnessed the flourishing of a new generation of US-based Latin American artists—sons and daughters of the “cosmic race” that José Vasconcelos envisaged in 1925—whose work add a dimension, albeit often tragic, to the traditional Hispanic aesthetic character. In Chicago, a handful of young plastic artists from Puerto Rico truly representing this late geographical shift include Oscar Luis Martínez.

Born in Ponce, a city on the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, his late work reveals him particularly idyllic about his upbringing in the Tropics. His birthplace was once a prosperous region of sugarcane plantations equipped with a restless port. Today it houses a spiritually stifling, high-tech industry that is turning the area into a rootless cosmopolitan hub. Consequently, Martínez incorporates more than a distilled conglomerate of Indian, European, and African heritages into his paintings (the cosmic factor). The hyperbolic flora, seashore, and empyrean cloud, recur at the face of disappearance and exile (the tragic factor).

At times, the picturesque in his canvases conveys metaphors of age and transition (The Illusion of Time Reflected in Our Faces). Taíno and Black African iconography, such as the ceremonial masks, coexist alongside the hallmarks of a Latin sugarcane aristocracy (represented by a pompous antique side chair). Within the constraints of globalization, he still attains an exemplary compendium of Antillean eroticism couched on an undisturbed nature, as in Si Supieran (If They Only Knew)

Martínez emerged in the mid-1970s as a muralist after settling in Chicago at the peak of his adolescence, owing in part his mood and techniques to the rebellious outcries that Siqueiros, Orozco, and Diego Rivera had styled in Mexico. His concern with prenatal life and birth—an early distinctive sign in his easel paintings—set him apart from the strident pamphletist breed that populated the barrio’s streets at the time. Superfluous and self-destructive statements fostered by a distorted sense of ethnic pride (a sense grossly equated with marginal, inner-city life styles and extreme material poverty), ceased to become an absorbing issue for an artist who, far from becoming an apostate, firmly adhered to the authentic values of his culture of origin.

In his controversial exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1977, Martínez opted for shook effects of another kind. There he staged and exorcised, through a series of monumental paintings, the poetics of fright that were to shape the next phase of his artistic evolution. In that show, the imagery recalled slimy intestines foreshorten by dimming the background illumination. While the theatrical spotlights hit directly over the paintings, these ignited a Dantesque universe that requested the viewer’s full attention to perishable biological life cycles. By way of a virtual synthesis, the exhibit pointed at the importance of a spiritual inner space. Francesco da Mosto has written: “I realize that we islanders are odd people, even  eccentric, with an inborn need to cook up something—whatever it may be —as long as it’s original.” In a setting akin to Pirandello's Island of Fire—as Dante named Sicily—Martínez too found in his native soil the normative axis of misery and greatness that governs his work.

Although in a highly modified state, a number of Martínez’ former compositional strategies and methods can be detected in his most recent paintings, including Yesterday is Here Now, and ¿Por qué? (Why?), with its boasting Pachuco-like personae, a testament to the equivocal status-seeking behavior that subculture subjects tend to adopt. Prenatal life crowns the symmetry of Nucleus, while wrapped figures in Leaving Miracles Behind and Docile Desires, suggest the placenta. In There is no Meaning, as well as in Silent Dreams of the Divine, the placenta seems to appear again, but perceived from within, as if enticing us into a broader, universal womb-envelope. These works, of course, are not incidental discoveries, but the result of multiple osmotic mutations activated by ever-changing, complex realities. Their elements echo the formative years of an artist who has barely come of age, tracing his journey along the magnetic tracks of a tradition that continues to expand on the brink of another tumultuous century.

Most of Martinez’ late paintings promote an idealized habitat for memory and yearning. There is also the objective treatment of sensualism, which arises from the cognate paintings entitled Love is Blue, Docile Desires, Passion/Desire/Agony, Rebirth of Fragile Desires, and Paradise is Always Within. These force the spectator to notice the clear-cut activity between the landscape and the introverted defensive figure posed as a fetus. The environment divorces itself from the plane of depiction not only by its technical difference, but also by a state of mind rather than by the re-creation of reality. Tangible objects (the female nude and director’s chair, evidently construed from live models) appear quite separate from the zone that memory and passion reconstruct. In Paradise is Always Within, these two ends of thought try to meet. One cannot avoid seeing traces of Bacon François Pascal Gerald, especially from his portrait of Madame Récamier, or Edwaurd Burne Jones: Martínez also seems fixated to the Buñuelesque obscure objects of desire he has chosen as a vehicle for catharsis and exhilaration.

Many of Martínez’ paintings antagonize forms and theoretical oppositions in the color reel, adding a bonus of tension to the surfaces. (“Throw theory into the fire,” use to say Mikhail A. Bakunin: “It only spoils life.”) In others pieces, dramatic differences in textures and the heavy viscosity of the movements excise the objects from the scenic composition. Such is the case in Prisión del espíritu y la carne (Prison of the Spirit and the Flesh). Here technical spontaneity appears subdued by the power of content, myth, and symbol. The emphatic tendency to reiterate certain icons denote the painter’s intention to established a symbolic system, but with a legitimate twist of his own stamp and temper. Fancy symbolism defies tradition, which Martínez respects too much to disobey. He opts instead for a chaotic narrative whose elements connect one painting with another—a syntax rather than a thesaurus.

It is not sheer chance that the fishing boat Martínez placed in the oneiric atmosphere of ¿Por qué? (Why?), the Edge of Dream and Divine Revelation, clearly interlocks with biblical parables. It may also allude to the most likely atavistic process of involution the artist sometimes experiences in the creative act, as in the navigation-myth so aptly developed in Homer’s Odyssey. Pompey the Great would have associated the boat with the flight toward transcendence, in tune with the pessimistic, yet pertinent angle adopted by Nietzsche when he discusses the condition of “living in order to disappear.” Writes Martínez in a personal letter dated April 11, 1990:

“After returning from Puerto Rico and being touched by the village where I was born and raised, I suddenly realized that everything would sink under the water by the time I completed the paintings I was working on in Chicago, due to the construction of a millpond system in the area. I was certain that the deep nostalgia I felt then as I feel now for my birthplace would change the direction I had originally undertaken in the paintings I began at my studio.”

The literal phrase Martínez employs, “sink under the water,” collates with archetypical symbolism: water, for the most part, suggests the unconscious. On the other hand, the boat as a symbol in Gaston Bachelard’s analysis commonly represents a vehicle that leads to the discovery of the cradle, or the mother’s womb. Elsewhere in Martínez’ quoted letter, he refers to the female figure in Submerge into Solitude, At the Edge of Dreams, and Transplanted, as a generic link to the maternal affection and heroism of Puerto Rican women, for “they have been able to combat psychological and emotional conflicts, as well as social ones.”

If we attend to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, the botanical quality of this Woman-Mother-Nature—significantly depicted by a carving technique over thick layers of oil paint, for it homologates the objects—is also emblematic of a Homeric “return” to nature—or, as expounded by Platonic idealism and by Plotinus in particular, the “Eternal Return.” In other words, returning to the conception of phenomena as a cyclic organization. Martínez may be attempting to rescue his past from the quagmire of oblivion.

The strength of Martínez paintings resides in their densely packed emotional discharge. He evokes tradition through his “personal mythology.” His is a passionate soul troubled by a frugal, material life that desperately struggles to bridge the ever-present aporia between our past and present, myth and reality, agony and joy, life and death. He draws breath from within his own talent, with fortunate profits in depth and projection. Analogous to what Elias Canetti termed the “verbal rage” among emigrants, Martínez also exaggerates in his pictorial language the typological building blocks that demark his national origin, and thus help him face silence and isolation. Open for further study and interpretation, these paintings—the stairway to Oscar Luis Martínez’ vision—consummate meanwhile the painful renouncement discovered by Nietzsche: “In order to see the truth, you must accept exile.”
[Summer 1995, revised February 2013]