"Why Not," John Martini's grimly amusing series of steel sculptures, experiments with crude pairings of body parts and tools or machines to explore issues of bodily functionality. But the figures are not entirely machine-like: their stiff, industrial bodies are offset by their facial expressions. Full of a lighthearted anxiety, these figures (all 2002-3) depart from Martini's whimsical flowing sculptures of the last 15 years, where implied motion reflects the influence of a carefree island environment (Martini lives in Key West).
Martini created these new sculpture by laying up to four identical pieces of steel, brushing on solid enamel colors - red, orange, yellow, blue and gray - then welding and cutting them with a blowtorch. The intense heat blasts the paint, leaving a dark, bubbled edge.
Soft geometric forms become birds, cats, and elements of the human figure - especially heads, which surfaced in Martini's work about five years ago. Blue Bust, a 500-pound peacock-blue lima bean-shaped head with a dumbfounded expression, rests on a yellow neck and blue base, without any indication of arms or legs. In Boid is the Woid, a bird perches on a head with a grimacing mouth and comical ears, seemingly listening to the avian communication but unable to react.
Action Cat, a monstrous sharp-toothed kitty on wheels, is both robotic and primitive. And Floating Away, which shows five spermatozoa-like creatures each expressing a different emotion, suggest cells attempting to communicate.
In contrast to the physical restraint of these works was Three Graces Three, which shows three tall female figures reaching for one another and the sky, their lower limbs resembling the roots of a mangrove tree, which is famously relentless in it's drive to anchor itself in muddy shallow waters. A mustard yellow patina offered a hint of warmth. This is Martini's third iteration of the graces, and with each subsequent sculpture they become more abstract yet no less expressive.
The formidable sobriety and endurance of the material, rough edge steel, makes an interesting conjunction with the figures. Some of the figures are whimsical, whimsical man endures. Man with brain, and brain conceives, rolling along on wheels of his own devising. Man and woman arise elongate from their steel bases, as at the first day of creation, both vulnerable and durable. Clearly they are made for each other. The very blunt-contoured figures explore the conceptualization further, what is man that you art mindful of him? The measure of all things, in this work. There's also an interesting friction between nature and culture.
The (wonderful) bird in the (wonderful) strongly-rooted tree; that?s nature. Man and woman arising like thoughts from matter? Nature...but soon man and woman come up with culture; wheels and steel wing and levers. All the simplified human forms in the work raise every question, not least that of beauty. Why do I find these beautiful in their power? The surface execution shows ever -more-sure mastery. But I like them metaphysically. I prize a little card, from a place card, on which you drew the man's head, mouth open, lying dismembered, in profile and in a state of Beckett like post utterance...and next to it you or someone else wrote the words "Harold Bloom"
Good old existentialism. (It's what I try to do)
Why did the chicken cross the mind?
A huge selection of John Martini's sculpture and monoprints spanning several decades at the Custom House Museum offers viewers a rich opportunity to see the artist's work in depth. Martini's works - in spite of their heavy composition - manage to feel spontaneous and light-hearted, inviting us not to take them, or their creator, too seriously. Here, his merry characters, ranging from birds to lizards to human figures, include works of many dimensions, but the thread of whimsical ingenuity that is a trademark of this artist is clear. Along with his three-dimensional works is a fine group of new monotypes.
The galleries are filled with a wild array of creatures large and small; free-standing skeletons, birds, men in hats, naked women, dogs and even kiddy cars; "Bob's Buggy" of 2001 will make you smile. These steel sculptures, cut with a blowtorch, are often layered, incised and polychromed in bold primary colors. Many have wheels, arms, legs and other appendages that bring them to life.
Wall-hung works include "When You're a Jet," a fine horizontal "stage" piece with a full cast of dancing characters; joined in a theatrical chorus line spanning five feet, they cast striking shadows. Early works include several pieces from 1983: "Leo," "Papa Doc: He's Gone," "Rats" and "Broken Columns." Noteworthy is "Limbo" from 1991 and "Zulu" from 1986, featuring unusually strong colors that appear to be floating on the surfaces. Letters spelling Z U L U glow red as they protrude from blue water in which a flailing maiden appears to be drowning. Another stand out is "Guatamala," in which a siren is carried on a plinth by a small armada of men.
On the walls are monoprints from the 2008 "Custom House Series" that include an oft-recurring Martini image, a human head in profile with one eye inquisitively scanning the landscape. They feature bright colors in groups of two, four or six, laid over white, black and orange grounds. One print shows a man striding, his one-eyed profile intently looking down, with an animal running in the opposite direction in the print below it. Shown together, this coupling (and several others on view) gain from their pairing.
Martini says that "the immediacy of the monoprint process has allowed me to refine and enlarge my palette." While most monoprints here have strong colors, a group of three in the 2006 "Aube Twilight Series" offer darker images; doll-like figures in blacks and grays with red splotches on their chests or abdomens look wounded, injured, fragile. Are they victims of war? Virgins defiled? Martini recalls them as reflections on Goya, whose work he came to know more fully through Robert Hughes' book on the artist. They were created during a period when the horror of the Iraq war, sickness and death were omnipresent influences for the artist.
Martini splits his time between Key West and France. His Key West studio is a former movie theatre in Bahama Village (its interior is shown on the exhibition card). But the cultural divide between the two countries does not seem problematic. While his French and American ateliers are dramatically dissimilar, his works march happily through the years in tune to a drummer John Martini hears clearly.
"This show is like a home coming," he says, "because my first studio in 1978 was a few buildings down from the Custom House. I started my Key West years walking past the old Custom House almost daily."
adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art
...As suggested in this and other previous works, a running theme of displacement, often humorous, also marks this years exhibition. One such project, John Martini's Stoop, places a short set of stairs and a mailbox in the vast open field of Fort Zachary. The contrast of scale and seeming inutility of the object seems abject, desolate, even tragic. Yet it is not the absence of the house to which the stairs and box belong that becomes the focus but rather, a recalibration of use---visitors are encouraged to leave notes and letters for the artist, who collects them regularly. Transforming decay and seeming discard into a site of exchange and connection might be an apt metaphor for many of the works in the show, and indeed the idea of transformation of space and experience is inherent to the overall mission of Sculpture Key West.
A simple collection of cement stair, a mailbox and a sidewalk suggest a missing house. Absence is presence. The artist prefers not to distort the relationship between work and the viewer with an explanation, relying instead on the work itself to say what needs to be said.
John Martini has had a solo show of his celebrated steel sculptures nearly every year for the past twenty years in Key West and Paris. Extremely prolific, widely collected, Martini is shown in no less than eight galleries around the world. In 2006 he was commissioned to create a work for Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ, consisting of two 30' heads. He also participated in the Giants in the City Project for Art Basel Miami Beach 2008 in which one of his large heads was made into an inflatable sculpture. Martini lives in Key West, FL.
His atelier is a former movie theater built in the Black Bahamian village during the days of racial segregation. After integration in 1965 the huge, high space was lived in by a witch, then by whores, then it briefly became the Martin Luther King Junior church. Later it was abandoned for a number of years until Martini bought it in 1985. He is one of the few whites in the neighborhood. Though by now he's become friendly with everyone up and down his street. The neighbor's roosters start calling around three in the morning. In a high wind palm fronds scrape against the sheet metal roof.
Martini lives in Key West year round, even during the hot sticky summers which last from May to November. Because he is used to dealing with the summer heat he works at night. He usually begins his work after nightfall and continues until the roosters remind him the dawn has come. In the summer the island reverts to its past. So few cars go by that a cat falls asleep in the middle of the road. People sit in swings on their porch, sip ice tea and chat. Everyone dozes. No wonder that the locals are called "conchs" after those shellfish that creep across the ocean floor.
To enter Martini's atelier at night is to interrupt a voodoo seance. The light is dim, a shadowy throng has gathered, and the mood is one of bewitched concentration. Dozens of very tall figures, cut out of scrap metal with a blowtorch, fill the immense space. Sometimes the metal was painted industrially and traces of the original color remain, but usually the hues are just those of steel and rust. The faces seldom define sharply differentiated individuals; rather they are the masks of interchangeable tribal members. Since the metal pipes Martini often uses are round, the concave sections that end up as sculpture become two or three figures turning in a dance or a single figure at once flat and rounded, flat because no features can protrude beyond the uniform surface of the metal, rounded because the pipe is curved.
If Martini's work has mostly been influenced by latin America (the Mexican Day of the Dead) and the Caribbean (Hatian metal cut-outs one would suspect), nevertheless it also has antecedents in the sculpture of this century (Giacometti and David Smith are his favorite modern masters) and even in the ancient Etruscan sculpture that looks as though it inspired Giacometti. Recently Martini was impressed by the Byzantine church sculpture in Ravenna. Martini travels in Europe and through the islands, notebook in hand, and is quick to sketch forms that speak to his sensibility.
But it would be a mistake to overemphasize the ethnographic or intellectual aspects of the oeuvre. When martini works he goes into a sort of meditation and loses all sense of time. In his huge old cinema palace he bodies forth the flickerings of his imagination, the shadows on the walls of his Platonic cave. He's begun to make furniture--a chair of which the back is a human face, the legs his arms and legs. Recently he's invented a stand in for himself, Bob, a guy with a hat. Many of Bob's adventures, including the survival of a hurricane are obliquely autobiographical. These narrative sculptures are horizontal.
Half of Martini's sculptures end up in gardens, often the semi-tropical gardens of the Keys in which banana trees attain their full height in a year beside palms and orange and grapefruit trees, not to mention the sculptural forms of a giant cactus, the night-blooming cereus. Martini himself is a nocturnal being, silently working, deeply entranced in his abandoned cinema in a garden full of roosters and palms.
John Martini est un sculpteur amercain qui vit a Key West, une ile au sud de la Floride a une journee de bateau de Cuba. Au cours des siecles, I'ile fut aubmergee par des vagues successives de gens - les Indiens, les explorateurs Espagnols, les fabricants de cigares cubains, les pecheurs des Bahamas, les naufrages blancs - et depuis une vingtaine d'annees, l'art de Martini, a lentement absorbe les influences de ces divers peuples. Mais finalement il s'integre bien dans ce paysage puisque, a partir de materiaux de recuperation, il en suggere l'heritage cultural complexe. A l'origine son atelier etait une salle de cinema construite dans le village Noir pendant la periode de segregation raciale. Apres l'integration de 1965, cet enorme espace fut habite par un sorcier, puis pas des prostituees, et devint pour un court moment l'eglise Martin Luther King Jr. Par la suite, il resta abandonne pendant des annees jusqu'a ce que Martini l'achete en 1985. Il est l'un des rares Blancs du voisinage, mais maintenant il connait tout le mond d'un bout a l'autre de la rue. Les coqs du voisin commencent a chanter vers trois heures du matin. Lors de vents violents, les palmiers cogent contre le toit de metal.
Martini habite a Key West durant toute l'annee, meme pendant les lourdes chaleurs des etes qui durent de Mai a Novembre, periode pendant laquelle les residents blancs, les "flocons de neige" s'envolent vers des contrees plus fraiches. Parce qu'il doit lutter contre la chaleur de l'ete, il travaille la nuit. Il debute generalement son travail apres la tombee de la nuit et le poursuit jusqu'a ce que les coqs lui rapellent que l'aube est la. Pendant l'ete, I'ile renoue avec son passe. Si peu de voitures circulent, que le chat peut s'endormir qu milieu de la route. Les gens s'asseyent dans des balancelles sous leur porche, sirotent du the glace et discutent. Tout le monde somnole. Personne nes etonne que les autochtones soient surnommes les "conques", comme ces crustacees qui rampent sous l'ocean.
Penetrer dans l'atelier de Martini, pendant la nuit, revient a interrompre une seance vaudou. La lumiere est pale, une foule d'ombre a envahi l'espace, et l'atmosphere est pleine d'une concentration supranaturelle. Des douzaine de tres grandes figures, decoupees au chalumeau dans de grandes pieces de metal, emplissent l'immense espace. Parfois le metal etait peint et des traces des couleurs d'origines sont encore visibles, mais generalement seules les couleurs de l'acier et de la boue sont visibles. Les visages definissent rarement des individus differents; mais sont plutot les masques des membres d'une tribu. Depuis que Martini utilise des tuyaux de metal, les concavities qui deviennent des sculptures representent deux ou trois figures dansant en rond ou une figure unique, a la fois plate et ronde - plate parce qu'aucune imperfection ne vient affleurer a la surface uniforme du metal, ronde puisque telle est la forme du tuyau.
Si le travail de Martini a ete en grande partie influence par l'Amerique Latine (le jour des morts au Mexique) et les Caraibes (le metal decoupe a Haiti), il a neanmoins des antecedents dans la sculpture de norte siecle (Giacometti et David Smith sont ses maitres modernes), ainsi que dans l'ancienne sculpture Etrusque, dont Giacometti semble s'etre egalement inspire. Recemment, Martini fut marque par la sculpture des eglises Byzantines de Ravenne. Martini se promene en Europe et a travers l'ile, son carnet en main, et trace, en de rapides esquisses, les formes qui l'ont touche.
Mais, cela serait une erreur de ne mettre en avant que l'aspect ethnographique et intellectuel de son oeuvre. Quand Martini travaille, il entre dans une sorte de meditation et perd toute notion du temps. Dans cet enorme et vieux cinema, il donne vie et forme a son imagination, aux ombres de sa caverne de Platon, Il a commence a faire du mobilier - une chaise dont le dossier est un visage, le pietement, des bras et des jambes. Dernierement il a cree Bob, un homme au chapeau, quasiment a son image. Beaucoup des aventures de Bob sont indirectement autobiographiques, meme celles qui racontent la survie a un ouragan. Ces sculptures narratives sont horizontales.
La moitie des sculptures de Martini se trouvent dans des jardins, souvent les jardins semi-tropicaux de Key West dans lesquels les bananiers atteignent leur taille definitive en un an, a cote des palmiers, des orangers et des pamplemoussiers, sans parler d'un cactus geant, aux formes sculpturales qui ne s'espanouit que pendant la nuit. Martini est lui-meme un noctambule, travaillant silencieusement, profondement absorbe, dans un jardin plein de coqs et de palmiers autour d'un cinema abandonne.
John Martini's studio in Key West, Florida, that singular, surprising American city, is an old movie theater, a fitting birth place for his larger-than-life, enigmatically iconic figures. And one of the delights of Key West is to come upon his work in the gardens, salons and watering holes there. I think of Martini's work as being sly in the most wholesome, enchanting sense. It is not merely a clever stratagem that his marvelous creations are so antithetically sculptural. Why be round when so much pleasure, so much fulfillment can be had in being flat?
His creatures are not poised to enter our common, three dimensional world, they inhabit another time, or timelessness, which time slyly is; they inhabit another dimension of becoming, a very stasis of becoming. The work is all straight-forward contradiction. His steel is lithe. His silhouettes have soul. There is a sense of bemused energy, an innocence that knowledge can only instruct in further innocence. His lean ladies and whizzy-haired gents, his hermetically self-contained, or startled, or benignly heraldic animals are heroically proportioned but shy, if not, indeed, flabbergasted, to find themselves present among us.
They are like Rilkean emissaries from some other, fresh, place. And they refresh us, how grateful we are.