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Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin

October 9 - December 2, 2015.

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At Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery (DHG) I am presented with an artist whose work does not live up to the legend, Chris Martin.

I have come to know Chris Martin's paintings and artist biography over the years through an accumulation of sources and experiences: by word of mouth by animated painters; through reading his Brooklyn Rail articles about abstract painting and Buddhism; through humanist articles and interviews by writer friends of the artist; and, in a New York gallery a few years back. In some ways Peter Gallo's essay in the accompanying DHG publication is more Chris Martin than the work presented at DHG. In fact, Gallo's introductory walkthrough into the Brooklyn home and studio of the artist, where life seems indivisible from painting, is like edging the orgasm without the pop in the gallery.

If you put 'Chris Martin' into Google you’ll get lots of stuff related to Cold Play front-man and his ex-relationship with actress Gwyneth Paltrow, it's a given. The other Chris Martin, New York-based painter and somewhat of a legend in his own turf, but not all that well known in these parts, has come of age over the last decade in the eyes of the global art market. 

In the last five years with big shows at the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf (2011) and Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2013) Chris Martin is as à la mode as you can get in Europe. Sounds awful. There’s something tragically romantic about great artists not making it but still making great art on the periphery. The idea of the artist just surviving but creatively flourishing may not be the dream of the artist but it is oftentimes the desire of the observer to attach some biographical struggle to their good reception of the great artist. And Chris Martin is an artist who has experienced firsthand the famine and feast of the artist’s life.

The thing is, scale is all and nothing in the work of Chris Martin, whether in his deference to the scale of the concrete world outside when he hangs paintings on the sides of buildings in Brooklyn, or has them standing guard overlooking the East River in New York City; or, when he kneels down in obeisance to the big human themes of love and death and spirituality.

At DHG we are given a museum show, or worse still, THE BEST OF CHRIS MARTIN as seen through a microscope – it’s a mixed tape. Sure, there are some individual gems, but they are missing their big brothers and sisters. There's a mini-Clyfford Still with snarly-red claw marks against a batty-black backdrop. Myles Davis hunkers over a lion head among Palm trees in Tax. In The Laundry we get a double image of heads formed out of socks and maybe a bra or two. We get glitter, Styrofoam fried eggs, newspaper, vinyl, a painting that is so spoilt that it is collapsing under its own democracy. And another that reminds me of teenage zits about to burst. There are single moments of what Peter Gallo describes as “dis-taste, the abject, the comic, and heart-felt monstrosity” but those moments are quickly released into the air like the fart from a whoopie cushion.

My previous experience of Chris Martin's paintings in the gallery was injected with scale, something that is absent at DHG. Once again, there is a glimpse of the Chris Martin that I have come to expect in Peter Gallo's essay, wherein the writer describes how large paintings in Chris Martin's studio act as “room-dividers” “to form a Merzbau, a labyrinthine space, both set and setting, which was simultaneously terrestrial and otherworldly”. Chris Martin somehow turns the Abstract Expressionist's use of scale to shock and awe on its head to construct a socially inclusive sublime. We get the mash-up of materials at DHG but it's presented as sushi not all-you-can-eat buffet. At DHG Chris Martin is a formalist spoiler, and that's about it.

So who is the real Chris Martin? Arriving in New York City in 1976 when art was all poststructuralist talk and aluminum boxes, Chris Martin made 18-foot paintings in his 19-foot apartment: he was 22. And that’s just the thing about Chris Martin’s paintings, anything goes and nothing goes. Lots of things helped to mould the young Chris Martin. One was the touring Neo-Expressionist smorgasbord which came to New York from Europe in the early 1980s and shocked the hell out of the tightly-knit New York art community that was the centre of the artworld but also blinded by its own light.

And then there was the monkey on every American painter’s back, the Abstract Expressionist legacy, the scale of which Chris Martin had already embraced in his 19-foot apartment by 18-foot paintings. Like all great painters Chris Martin would never be himself again in method, he would be an “’80s mongrel; a mélange of outtakes from Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, Elizabeth Murray and Sigmar Polke (Roberta Smith)”. And like all mongrels or thoroughbreds he was drawn to his own, so his hobo trolley full of personal effects was swapped for a hobo trolley of fugitive painters such as Forrest Best and Hilma af Klint. 

There’s other stories too, shrouded in a haze of drug-taking and trips to India in the early days, all in the name of painting. Chris Martin supposedly broke into a Brooklyn Cemetery in the 1990s and slept on Mondrian’s grave. He also made love on canvas. There is something insatiable about Chris Martin’s appetite for sublimating biophilia (love) and necrophilia (death) in paint – he has dedicated countless paintings to James Brown since his passing in 2006. Not to forget the small things, Chris Martin sometimes paints on toast: love and death and food, what else do you need? Nothing.

But at DHG we don’t get Chris Martin on toast, we get the Last Supper. Quantity doesn't save the day either in the tastefully hung display. It's probably partly down to a clash of personalities, between space and paintings. It's certainly down to the uniform scale of the selection. Fuck, out of the 13 paintings there’s 4 paintings that measure 114.3 cms and 6 paintings that measure 94cm. I don’t think I have ever went to the trouble of checking out dimensions in an exhibition, not to mention mentioning it in a review. I'm boring myself here.

Chris Martin talks about how he is "interested in accessing a scale that can encompass the shift between large image and small detail". Why I’m banging on about scale in painting is because small-scale painting has become our thing in this country, and we have become real good at it. I remember being in art college and hearing myths about Irish artists like Cecily Brennan painting 12-foot Neo-Expressionist monsters in the 1980s.

It's not enough for Irish artists to experience scale in painting online or even in the gallery abroad. It's like when you purchase clothes on holiday abroad, you come back home and say, fuck me, what was I thinking. Irish painters need to experience and wear scale at home. I'm not saying scale is everything, but it has an element of risk and commitment and pleasure that is all or nothing. Scale proposes what if..?

[James Merrigan]

Through 2 December.