On ViewAnton Kern
January 13 – February 26, 2022
Chris Martin has made an icon out of a fast-painted, joint-smoking skull. The iteration that graces his new show has a mouthful of golden teeth, and the fumes that rise from the joint’s tip form a double helix. The artist hung the piece high on the wall, near the ceiling, so you crane your neck a bit to see it. I remember at an earlier exhibition the icon was printed on a flag that flapped in the wind outside the gallery, above the entrance. Martin’s smoking death’s head connects notions of sensory pleasure with life’s most existential transitions. It gives off the mischievous and roguish energies of the trickster, to which the golden smile adds an extra degree of swagger. If this character were your guiding spirit, it would be a wild ride.
Anton Kern’s first floor gallery, where Martin’s show is installed, is shaped like a dumbbell. A skinny corridor connects a pair of roomy galleries on the north and south ends of the building. The architecture presents an interesting challenge for an artist: whatever goes in the hallway is something that will only be experienced up close. Chris Martin has shown with Anton Kern enough times to know how to manipulate the unique characteristics of the place. Because of its essentially linear structure, the exhibition space sets up a loose expectation for some form of narrative. It feels like there should be a beginning and an end—which there isn’t—but as you walk from one end to the other, and back again, the urge to make a story out of what you’re seeing is understandable. For me, the story was a parable of creation. More on this later.
Opposite the trickster skull in the north gallery is a whopper of a glitter painting. It’s a large object, taller and certainly wider than most people, and it’s wisely placed in a position to catch the maximum amount of natural light from the street-facing windows. Swarthy bands of matte paint divide the surface into various shapes the way New York state is partitioned into so many different counties. It’s marvelous and joyful, bright and colorful. The sheer quantity of glitter is astounding, and the array of colors is well balanced and clearly defined. It’s a party painting, exuding euphoria.
The crust of a Chris Martin painting is a special place, and in the passage between the first and second galleries one has the opportunity to really see why. Technically, the surface of the big untitled painting here is layered with oil and acrylic paint, glitter, sequins, and collage. But that’s a little misleading because every one of those ingredients alludes to a plethora of material variety—there are so many kinds of glitter, sequins, and collage—that the artist manages to make cohere. It’s incredible, this act of coherence, every time. The application of materials is handled with a boldness and speed that characterize the work of one who acts with confidence. It’s not that you have the impression the artist knows where he’s going, but the sureness of his decisions communicates a level of trust that is powerful. And this extends to all the covering-up of earlier choices.
The relationship of confidence to risk can be quantified by scale; the greater the risk the more confidence must be mustered. This plays out in spectacular fashion upon the five monumental canvases—eleven feet tall—that lend beauty to the south gallery. Of these five, you can see two paths taken: one is to the predetermined form; the other is to the form unknown. Twins and Big Midnight (both 2021) both strike me as pretty direct paintings, good examples of the artist on the former path (also, Seven Pointed Star [2018–20] in the hallway); whereas Telescope Sphinx in Outer Space (2019–21) and the two untitled paintings exemplify the latter path. When a thing presents itself as a form predetermined, one expects a degree of structure and stability, because after all it’s been planned out. The opposite approach is to improvise and the expectation here is to explore, to roam, and surprise. Of course, the best do both and despite these basic distinctions, elements of each can be found in all Chris Martin’s paintings. The untitled painting rimmed with cerulean blue looks like it was made in one shot with a wet broom in a race against time, whereas the untitled painting beside it is built layer by layer with a variety of washes and brushwork. The experience of time is different, but the force of affect comes in equal measure.
Telescope Sphinx in Outer Space is the painting that brings it all back home for me. It’s essentially a psychedelic sunset. There’s a big night sky done in chunky bands of blue and black set above a thin turquoise ground that runs along the bottom edge of the canvas and is accentuated by sweeping strokes of orange that zip outwards linking sky to land. In the center, pasted on like a giant amulet, is a yellow smiley face sun whose day’s-parting rays fall upon a big toad, some mushrooms, a Royal Pine car freshener, and pictures of crystals, wild birds, and what looks like hieroglyphs depicting winged dancers. Bob Marley and a trio of randy sailors are up in the celestial sphere along with Saturn, the sphinx, a satellite, and a strip of yellow cannabis leaves. The painting opens access to so many ideas all at once that you get disoriented in your own web of cross-references, but that campy feel-good sun is the emotional anchor, and its weight holds the swings of mind more or less in place.
On my return passage through Anton’s corridor, I paused at the desk to read the titles of the works, and there learned the skull hung high was a tribute to Lance De Los Reyes, the legendary New York graffiti artist who died last fall. In a flash all the expressions of looking up, ostensibly to the night sky, and seeing with both eye and mind, became connected to the act of remembrance, to the sadness of mourning infused with the celebration of life. Standing between the party painting and the memento mori, I got the sense of completing a circuit, and that’s when the notion of a parable got in my mind. I’ll outline it to end: In the morning there’s a person who doesn’t know what to make, so they make many things. In the afternoon they decide what they like to make best, and they make it with tenacity. In the evening they share what they’ve made with another person, and the act makes both people feel good. When the stars come out, the two people look up and talk about what they made and what they’d like to make, and that’s life.