Chris Martin: Painting Big

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Editorial Review

Don't miss: 'Painting Big'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

This weekend is your last chance to see “Chris Martin: Painting Big,” a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art that means what it says. Three of the New York-based, Washington-bred painter’s canvases are 26 feet tall. Like giant stage backdrops, they greet visitors in the museum’s soaring atrium.

Elsewhere in the show, you’ll encounter works that are only medium-big, and others — some made with bread, tinfoil, roofing cement and other household objects — that are actually rather small. But it’s the underlying idea of Martin’s art, which aims to break down the barriers between painting and everyday life, that’s really big.

Art review: ‘Chris Martin: Painting Big’

By Michael O’Sullivan
Thursday, June 23, 2011

When read out loud, the title of the new Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition “Chris Martin: Painting Big” has a “me Tarzan” economy of expression.

It’s not surprising. The show includes three 26-foot-tall abstract canvases painted with a broom instead of a paintbrush. If laid flat on the ground, each would be about the size of a boxing ring, making the evocation of grunting and chest-thumping appropriate. There’s an air of brusque masculinity here that feels a little . . . loud. How subtle can you be when you’re painting at billboard scale?

So it’s a bit surprising how close you have to get to Martin’s paintings to really hear what they have to say.

The three Jumbotron paintings are recent works created specifically for the museum’s light-filled atrium. One is covered with pounds of gold glitter. The other two are simple geometric abstractions. Together, they look like a trio of oversize birthday presents, done up in the world’s largest wrapping paper. But get up close and you’ll see tiny collage elements worked into the paint: paper money, photos of musicians, vinyl record albums, pictures of birds and mushrooms, even the footprints of Martin’s pet chicken, Helen, who walked across one painting before it was dry. (The name of the piece, “Light Brahma Stomp,” refers to a breed of domesticated hen.)

Other works in “Painting Big” incorporate even more static. In the Rotunda, a salon-style survey of Martin’s career features 47 small paintings dating from 1980 to 2011, as well as three sculptures (actually three concrete gnomes, like the kind you buy at a gardening supply store, that the artist has spray painted). The works form a fascinating hodgepodge, put together from such things as slices of Wonder bread, bent nails, carpeting, cardboard boxes, dead leaves (I think), an old pillow, roofing cement, spray-on foam insulation and the inside album art from Traffic’s 1970 album “John Barleycorn Must Die.”

They don’t shout; they mumble. You have to lean in close to hear them, and even then they’re slightly incoherent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. They feel like they’ve got secrets.

A third upstairs gallery contains half a dozen abstract paintings around the theme of landscape. They’re big, but not as big as the paintings in the Atrium. One, called “Hemlock,” is about 10 feet by 11 feet and depicts a pair of tall evergreens.

Here’s the thing: None of these pictures is especially pretty.

The biggest paintings — the ones in the Atrium — are actually kind of grubby. Painted either on the roof of his Brooklyn studio or spread out on the lawn of his partner’s home in the Catskills, all three show signs of weather. “Light Brahma Stomp” features skunk tracks, in addition to the chicken footprints. The surface of the glitter piece — called “Radio Sunset” in homage to the old AM stations the artist listened to while growing up in Washington — buckles badly and sags in the middle.

That’s perfectly fine with Martin, who says his goal isn’t to make pretty pictures but powerful ones, about memory and real life. The “big” in “Painting Big” refers less to the size of his paintings than to his ambition.

“I’m not trying to paint a picture of the sun,” he explains, referring to his landscape works, several of which were inspired by sunlight on the Ganges River. “I’m trying to make a machine that gives you that sun energy.”

The idea of paintings as machines is key to appreciating Martin’s art, which, taken as a whole, has the air of an elaborate whirligig, albeit one put together with spare parts and duct tape. And no instruction manual.

Martin is a strange kind of painter, one for whom the paint seems almost secondary to the naive, spackle-and-spittle aesthetic of the outsider artist. Of course, he isn’t an outsider.

He isn’t exactly a mechanic, either. Machines either work or they don’t. With paintings, it isn’t so simple. Their power doesn’t come from what an artist puts into them, but from what the viewer is able to take away from them.

With Martin, there’s lots to choose from. Several of his paintings are, in fact, big. But the world that he throws into them — indeed, the world that he throws at you — is even bigger. It’s a world of pop music, glitter and glue, sunsets on the Ganges, hemlocks, chickens and the skunks that come after their eggs. It’s a world of faded memories and fresh footprints, and it’s your world, too.

The story behind ‘Chris Martin: Painting Big’

You’re meant to feel the three giant paintings in “Chris Martin: Painting Big” as much as look at them. They have the scale — and the impact — of architecture, not art.

But I suggest you also look behind them.

Painted on unstretched canvas in New York and then mounted (and raised, like a barn) on customized aluminum and wood stretchers that were put together in the Corcoran’s atrium, they look, from the back, like the flimsy theatrical flats you may remember from high-school drama club. Martin is quick to admit the “performative” aspect of painting — especially when the artist is pushing the stuff around with a big plastic broom instead of a delicate sable brush. He’s comfortable with the idea that his art might be stagy, too.

In other words, whether the chicken footprints that appear in one of his pictures look “real” doesn’t interest him. They’re from actual chickens, but they look fake. To paraphrase the old tag ­line from a commercial for the synthetic fabric Dynel, the objects at the Corcoran aren’t fake anything; they’re real paintings.

— Michael O’Sullivan