OSCAR LUIS MARTINEZ AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PUERTO RICAN ARTS & CULTURE

by: Victor Cassidy
Oscar Martínez shows us his dreams. His paintings, which follow the Latin American creative tradition of Magical Realism, refer to his childhood in rural Puerto Rico and his lifelong connection to the island. “Even if one chooses not to go back home,” says the artist, “the choice in itself is subject to the knowledge that there is a home to go back to.” 

Martínez left Puerto Rico as a teenager and has spent his life in Chicago. Educated in medical illustration, he taught himself painting and has exhibited widely in the United States and overseas. He was actively involved in the Chicago mural movement and is widely respected for his work on behalf of the City of Chicago and its Latino community. 

In September 2015 through April of 2016, Martínez exhibits nineteen oil paintings at Chicago’s National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. He called his show “Metamorphosis of Divine Entanglement.” Individual paintings show nudes, roosters, a youth, an old woman, and fantasy people in lush tropical landscapes. 

Martínez depicts the nudes in a variety of ways. He paints two fully naked. One sits in a director’s chair covered from head to toe in a network of red yarn. Another is colored bright red while two are covered with tattoo-like imagery. Martínez’ nudes could very well be the same model in different poses. None of them projects much personality or sexuality. They are dream women, not real women.

Martínez’ landscapes are lush but in no way realistic. We see numerous leaves of the tropical plants (philodendrons?) that Chicagoans buy from florists and keep in their homes. Those same plants grow wild all over Puerto Rico. There are also many vines that form formal backgrounds to some paintings or run everywhere in others. 

Paradox shows (from left to right) a youth, a rooster, and a nude in a leafy landscape with a patch of sky at the upper right. The young man seems to be growing out of the ground. He’s greenish from the waist down (and strategically covered with three leaves), but looks normal from the waist up. His right arm extends downward; his forearm and hand become branch and root-like. Plants grow on top of his head and they seem to be budding. 

The rooster, which fills the center of Paradox, is a familiar sight in tropical villages like the one in which the artist grew up. The nude on the right lies down and looks up at the sky. Her body is covered with greenish designs and her dangling feet become root-like. A network of roots and vines is the active background in Paradox.    

Two paintings in the show--Charco Jobo (Jobo Puddle) and El Charco (Puddle) -- are unpeopled landscapes filled with leaves, a few star-like white flowers, and running water. There are mysterious patterns at the tops of both scenes.   

Charco Jobo and El Charco are thickly painted. Martinez makes the water seem to move by texturing the wet paint surface with a comb-like tool. In Memories, a more symbolic work, the artist puts down yellow paint, lets it dry, covers it with brown, and uses a tool to make marks—bud-like forms, suns, and twisty vines--in the wet paint so the yellow shows through from behind.

What do we know about Puerto Rico? It’s easy enough to find data about per capita income, educational levels, public finances and the like, but that tells us nothing about what’s really happening in Puerto Rican heads and hearts. To know those things, we need an artist, someone who speaks higher truths. Martínez is such an artist. 

 At this time, I write for Sculpture Magazine, FiberARTS, Chicago Art Slant, Ceramics Art and Perception, and the Saatchi Newsletter. At times in the past, I have written for ArtNet, Art in America, Black & White, Focus Magazine, American Ceramics, Art on Paper, Art News, New Criterion, and Art Newspaper.

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-worldly 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: Prison 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 narration s 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 elements.  

     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 directed and produced modern and contemporary art fairs from 1991 until 2010, notably Art Chicago for 9 years, as one of its founders. In 2000 Vardy was tapped to redevelop the concept of and direct Art Miami, the only fair in South Florida at that time. In 2004 she moved to Miami Beach with her family to become part of Miami's burgeoning art scene and to solidify the fair's position in the international art calendar. She remained at the helm of Art Miami through 2007, after moving its dates to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach. She also launched Chicago Contemporary & Classic and ArtDC during her tenure with the former owners of Art Miami.

Vardy's longtime expertise in Latin American art, coupled with proficiency in both French and Spanish, led her to curate and write about exhibitions since the early 1990s. Vardy also held the title for many years of Copy Editor for ArtNexus magazine, which is devoted to highlighting Latin American art worldwide. She continues to work with ArtNexus.com online.


RE-SPIRITING THE VOID

The Latest Paintings of Oscar Luis Martínez

At an age when most commoners have settled in with the unanswerable questions about our human fate, Oscar Luis Martínez renews the probe with a livelier volubility. What do we make out of the dreams that emerge from the abyssal depths of our minds? How can we entrust ourselves at decoding the resurgent mysteries with which our ever-elusive reality assaults us? For decades, Martínez' pictorial grapple with these existential riddles has gained force by an exponential polarity. He has not rutted in vain into the self-styled idiom that once earned him a place in what the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno dubbed as intrahistory, or the day-to-day happenings muted by the official accounts of a forged tradition. Real tradition, to secure its survival, must strive for change and development as an integral whole; the steeper the leap forward, the stronger the roots that must maintain it. More than ever before, this proposition attains a singular breath in Martinez's latest series of paintings. 

 A grammar forever scarce at bridging the gap between our thoughts and the new mysteries new realities breed has not hindered his search. Martínez frames instead his own expression in a spacetime, as he adequately names it, which beguiles the indivisible matrix locked in every thread of existence. Immortality in his canvases trickles from a decentralized universe of unlimited possibilities. The prospection, rife beneath the skin of his subjects and insistently versified as an idyllic homecoming, was already one of his most distinctive traits before he seasoned into a key player in the mural movement that branded most of Chicago's heritage neighborhoods back in the early 1970s. "Even if one chooses not to go back home," Martínez still professes, itself is subject to the knowledge that there is a home to go back to" With the grinding passage of exile this stronghold may risk shattering into a delusion and peter out on its true demise; yet in his case the metaphorical "sense of belonging and refuge" strives on how it accrues a vertical polar growth that is also liberating.

If it were not for the freedom this in- verted relationship affords, it would seem as frivolous as the oft-misapprehended ideas that Théophile Gautier, the major and most heated exponent of Art for Art's Sake, stoked up in early nineteen-century France. To be more precise, his timely aesthetics held that a worldly belief in the spirit had to stand above all those advancements rushed by an age of science and technology running amok.

Art-for-artsakers would concede that there is of course a valid reason to deride artists if weighted on a scale of necessities in the backwoods. Otherwise, the bread for the spirit baked from the higher reaches of civilization has us nourished better than all those "indigestible degrading drugs" with which the materialistic utilitarian champions progress. The Industrial Revolution and its corollary pauperism demonstrated that formal beauty, strictly speaking, is never a pure abstraction, but a very filling offset borne out of the infinite variation of forms created by artists at work from a bold self-referential autonomy. Fine art may emerge as an antithesis to tangible and instantaneous usefulness, though only from this stance it belies, as Martinez's has charged, "a paradox created by science and religion... a void."

The photographer Anna Shteynshleyger strikes upon the irony when she notes that even in the art world today the term "spirituality" has become largely taboo. Martínez's lay mystical sense weds New Age skepticism by fleshing moreover the void with a Gautierian spirit. Viewers who partake in his séance find clues of a greater force in the indigenous symbols from his tropical birthplace. The emphatic significance of these conveyors-the independent reality of swirls and organic rhizomes caught in their transitional course-befall on their ultimate purpose: to interweave and fuse the elements into a cosmogonic oneness. The female figure writhes with the basking flora and plots against the deceptions that disengage our lives. Here procreation awakens in the Antillean-Daphne who flees from the inane expediency under which we lose our grip. Refreshed techniques render her recoiling toward the primal soil as she foliates anew and conspires with Nature and Memory.

Beauty here re-spirits the void of our era and rejoices on the claim that the most cogent opposition to our destruction may dawn from our "imagined past, present and future."

As in many other instances before, the solo exhibition of Metamorphosis of Divine Entanglement by Oscar Luis Martínez at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture re-spirits the void of our era and rejoices on the claim that the most cogent opposition to our destruction may dawn from our
"imagined past, present and future.

-Egberto Almenas, PhD

Essay lightly adapted by the author from its original version in the book entitled Art Capsules: The Contemporary Art Scene in Central Florida and Beyond. Brunswick, Maine: Shanti Arts Publishing, 2014, pp. 179-183. Permission to reproduce thanks to the publisher's courtesy.