Archeology of the Mind
Oscar Martínez, Puerto Rican and a resident of Chicago since his mid teens, utilizes a symbolic vocabulary in his paintings that references his childhood. These symbols, or metaphors his grandmother in a rocking chair, river stones, roosters, a particular species of leaf, boats, chairs and other-worldy figures such as a striped female figure-embody the artist's history, and he uses them to describe his exploration of the spiritual world and the personal messages that lie within the folklore of his youth. Each title in Martínez' body of work reveals the type of questions foremost in his mind: Prision del Espiritu y la Carne (Prison of the Spirit and the Flesh), Vienen por mi y todos mis recuerdos (They are Coming for Me and All of My Memories), Altar, The Earth Will Reclaim You, to name a few.
Martínez is captivated by the idea of the perception of reality in art. He is engaged in a constant dialogue between the act of painting, which requires a controlled cognizance of time and space in order to depict images on a canvas, and the effect of this action as a poetic metaphor. Whereas the essence of the spiritual is itself intangible in the physical world, the creation of paintings whose images define a perception of the spiritual world render tangibility to an otherwise wholly internal state of being. Spirits, for Martínez, are companions to one's self; they are beings which guide us to a higher plateau beyond the mere exist. Several years ago Martínez discovered that the paintings depicting memories of his childhood in Puerto Rico unleashed an ability to define his own sense of the metaphysical aspects of life. The repetitive use of symbols related to the island became Martínez' vehicle with which to create visual narratives of his past and thereby define a sense of a linear reality. For example, Martínez' striped female figure represents an image of an idea of nothingness; that is, a spiritual body that exists only within the free floating line on the canvas. Without the rendered form on the canvas, this figure is reduced to its essential spirit; still equally real as before in the artist's mind, but now tangible to the observer and therefore definable in reality.
Even without Martínez' explanations of the spiritual presence in his work, these narrationĖs command the viewer's attention by the activity on the canvas alone. There is no negative space, no breathing room, only vibrancy of color and composition. The dynamic and tactile surface quality of his work lures the observer inside of the painting, forcing questions, creating a need to resolve the mystery that surely lays within the canvas. The images are vital, stirring and often disturbing. An observer cannot walk away without at least some comprehension, or at the very minimum a sense of curiosity about the world created by Martínez. It can become a game between audience and artist, where the viewer attempts to define a reality perceived by the artist, while the artist attempts to define a reality perceived by the world outside of himself. The style of Martínez' work thus becomes a self-perpetuating tool the artist implements to forge new definitions of his inner world. Take, for example, his 1994 painting titled "Llanto en Vano "(Cry in Vain), which depicts on old woman in a rocking chair, her crying head buried in her arm; a striped female figure dominating the foreground in a twisted, free-falling position, with an expression of simultaneous ecstasy and agony; and a third female figure of translucent white emerges from the rocks of a dried-up riverbed. The rocks represent the river that once flowed in Martínez' backyard (his native town of Maraguez gave way to a dam and is now under water), and they are also the unchanging soul from which his memories resurface. Perhaps these three figures represent aspects of one: the old woman's young spirit as it emerges from the water, the striped spirit as it writhes in its youthful energy, and the old woman crying in vain to recapture these lost element.
Perhaps, too, the old woman's cry in vain to preserve her youthful spirit causes her soul to emerge from the rocks; or maybe it is the pained spirit twisting in its earthly flesh that longs to be freed and return to the rocks from which she came. However we interpret the scene, we witness the struggle, the cycle, the lush setting of the tropics, the desire to seek answers.
Altar is unusual in that it depicts one of the few self-portraits of the artist. The figure in the foreground arises from the riverbed of rocks; we see him from the waist up and standing behind him is another version of himself, but wearing a monster mask. From the river of rocks also emerge flaming sticks, hands attached to disembodied arms, a rooster; the striped spirit-figure writhes again in the background, perhaps watching over (or agonizing over?) the sacrifice of the artist's soul to his past.
The dreamlike quality in all of Martínez' paintings allows both painter and audience to enter into this sacred realm and explore the offerings our psyches so richly accumulate. One can always choose to walk past a painting, deciding not to attempt an interpretation but only to admire its surface qualities; or one can step inside of the story itself to interact with the messages revealed within.
Ilana Vardy is the Director of Art Miami and contributing writer to Art Nexus an international art magazine