Cameron Martin: Parts to Whole
On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co
April 14 – May 27, 2022
The recent work leading to Cameron Martin’s current suite of eight monumentally-scaled and stenciled acrylic canvases at Sikkema Jenkins & Co has been characterized as “non-objective” and “hard-edged abstractions.” Marked by these descriptors of high modernity and offset by a diffusion of and decentering into a sort of conceptualized abstraction, these paintings extend a certain graphic language employed by painters who created a variety of crisp-edged plastically acrylic landscapes in the early aughts, including Benjamin Edwards, Kevin Zucker, Julie Mehretu, Tom McGrath, Corrinne Wasmuht, Brian Alfred, Frank Webster, and Martin himself.
While Martin’s landscapes and fragments of nature from the aughts implied socio-political and ecological issues, and were even framed by a robust discourse in a 2009 monograph around the history of the Hudson River School, the sublime, and what is now decried as settler colonialism, Martin frustratingly would not explain why he was using landscape. He only ever acknowledged that he was more interested in the imaging of landscape (see our interview in this publication in March 2011).
Cameron Martin has always had counter-cultural, counter-hegemonic tendencies—from his youth in skateboarding and punk music to his participation in the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in the late 1990s—and in his landscapes, he once implicated George W. Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative, which lifted air pollution controls in favor of big business. And yet, for all these possibilities of cultural critique, Martin has consistently espoused a commitment to technology, semiotics, and craft, saying in 2011, “I wondered what it would mean to go to the perverse extreme of painting a picture that was made to look as much as possible as if it had been printed by an ink jet printer.” Paradoxically, the only physical evidence of stencils cut by an architectural plotter is the signature crisp and clean edges in his mark making, which are easily overlooked and certainly invisible in reproduction. (Hence, I am relieved to see these unmediated—not on the screen I have lived through during these trying years of the pandemic). This contradiction of material, process, and image then endlessly asks: why paintings?
Nevertheless, over the last decade, Martin has doubled down on the image as subject as he developed a formal abstract variety which has proven to be generative and elastic. He has also recently returned to his stencil process. While abandoning landscape’s direct depictions, its specter remains in such paintings as Deluge (2021), where undulating teal and purple wavelet ribbons evoke at once highways and waves, as if in another homage to the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s landscapes. These new paintings are subtle, smart, and hunky, rewarding careful and sustained seeing. A satisfying dialectic is apparent in the way the topographical flatness of abstraction (often holding faint transparencies) is mutually determining to an inherent illusionism and narrative in his quotation of brushstrokes in several. This is most effective in Sunblind (2021), recalling the mid-1960s screen-printed canvases of Roy Lichtenstein.
Yet unlike Lichtenstein’s lively ruses, Martin’s canvases are somber, stony, even cynical. Having studied semiotics at Brown, Martin complicates his graphic language with symbols of gesture—these flattened brushstrokes signifying both Pop and by turns Abstract Expressionism. In the blanched gray and saturated purple Harbinger (2021), a Jackson Pollock-esque tangle of bristle marks rambles across the canvas from the top to bottom.
I’m most interested in an implicit art historical intervention in which social criticism is embedded, especially if you take his earlier work and his ambivalence towards staking a political position as any indication. Like much of Pop, a deep ambivalence towards critique is evident in Martin’s practice. If his relationship to Pop is strongest in this exhibition, it is through a view that these paintings are signifiers of designs from the graphic commercial world in such paintings as Scale Remainder (2022). Recalling Nicholas Krushenick’s compositional strategies and palette from the late 1960s and 1970s, the underlying grid of perforated dots in the jagged vector field of cadmium red also evokes Donald Judd’s sculptures of the early 1960s and Lichtenstein’s use of Benday dots as artifacts from his process of enlarging images from magazine reproductions.
As Martha Rosler argues in her ever-relevant 1981 essay “‘I cannot say, I only repeat’ (a note on quotes and quoting),” irony as a critical vehicle is “not universally accessible, for the audience must know enough to recognize it.” Like Pop’s quotational irony that she contends “was so faintly inscribed,” I admit that certainly these signals of critique in Martin’s work are as subdued as their austere syntax of abstraction. Are his paintings received as an ironic “critique of execrable taste” as Rosler says of Pop? Perhaps, if a knowing viewing recognizes both Martin’s visual and ideological understatements; perhaps not, if one can acquiesce to his previously stated belief that painting’s audience will always involve an artist preaching to the converted.