Aesthetic Scavenger Hunt

Art as something other than an exercise in high-end comparison shopping

On Bedford Avenue, south of Metropolitan, the friction of gentrification becomes visible. The shiny cafes, bars, and bookstores of Williamsburg give way to the bodegas, Laundromats, and grim Chinese take-out joints of the Southside. A motley array of signage announces the changing of the guard.

Hovering cryptically over the visual fray of the street, Chris Martin’s 12 x 10 foot painting, “Manikarnika Ghat (Dedicated to Frank Moore)” hangs high up on an exterior wall of the gallery building. Stepped red and black geometric shapes suggest some sort of optical game or cosmic launch pad. The peculiarity of seeing “real” paintings outside of a gallery becomes apparent once you spot the four smaller, abstract pictures attached to the bricked-up windows in the abandoned building across the street. Before you even enter the gallery, you’re already in the show.

Martin’s playful desire to dislodge the viewer’s expectations starts to crystallize once you’re actually inside. Three enormous paintings as well as more than 180 smaller works are hung salon-style in a space domesticated by a homey assortment of lamps, sofas, rugs, and pillows. As if to create a space for conversation and contemplation, Martin has mixed his own paintings with newspaper clippings, photographs, postcards, and, most importantly, works by other artists taken from his own collection. For the viewer, the installation becomes a kind of pleasurable scavenger hunt that yields evidence of aesthetic family resemblances and kinships of temperament.

Martin’s paintings and works on paper are united by a rough expediency of materials, palette, and touch. Over and over, the same pure reds, yellows, and cerulean blues are punched up by the use of black and white. Simple, enigmatic graphic compositions are laid in with a responsive hand and are reminiscent of Tantric painting as well has 20th century mystical abstraction. As your eye scans the chockablock wall and artistic references click into place, lovely simpatico works by Alfred Jensen, Katherine Bradford, Tom Nozkowski, Joe Fyfe, and a whole host of others appear next to Martin’s paintings as if to echo the viewer’s own discoveries.

With a beautifully light hand, Chris Martin undermines the nagging sense that looking at art these days has been reduced to an exercise in high-end comparison shopping. Many of the works in this exhibition are untenable. Oddly made, non-archival, or simply too big for anything but a museum, Martin’s exhibition and ideas spills out into real life, reminding us that the sterile mall of Chelsea is not good for us or art.

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