Review: Daniel Joseph Martinez in commanding form at Roberts & Tilton
Few artists working in Los Angeles today have been as consistently adamant in their politics as Daniel Joseph Martinez. From his famous contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white” — a work whose edge has yet to dull in 20 years of near-constant citation — to his recent trek along the 800-mile length of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Martinez’s work is scored with outrage and the particular brand of analytical fascination that outrage tends to engender.
Less often discussed, though equally significant, is the curious nature of the artist’s poetics: how elusive and strange his sculptures, photographs and text works can be, how beautiful and sad, particularly in recent years.
The shrewd balance that Martinez manages to maintain between these two seemingly contradictory qualities — the trenchant and the enigmatic — is evident throughout his commanding new body of work at Roberts & Tilton, beginning with the title: “I am a verb. I traded the future for a caramel Frappuccino, there will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined.”
The exhibition, his first L.A. gallery show in 10 years, is an inspired integration of the lyrical and the blunt. Entering the gallery, one is greeted by the low, voluminous sounds of a Muslim prayer chant — issuing, it turns out, from an aged cassette player with the microphone of a bullhorn strapped to its speaker. It is a simple but potent arrangement, more pointed today than it would have been even at the opening of the show, given the recent rioting in the Middle East.
Four large photographs nearby, set on the floor against the wall, depict the artist as a kind of culturally schizophrenic dictator, with a grotesque prosthetic hunchback and phrases of Latin, Hebrew and Arabic texts tattooed across his chest and arms, wearing either a papal miter or an enormous papier-mâché mask, kneeling on a Muslim prayer rug that is scattered with images of machine guns.
One of the most moving yet in an ongoing series of works built around the artist’s body (or animatronic clones thereof), the piece is striking above all for its humanity, visible in the crystal clarity of its details: chips and cracks in the surface of the aging mask; wrinkles in certain areas of the skin, contrasted by patches of child-like smoothness.
The effect of a third major element in the gallery’s main space — a large, square mirror that protrudes from the wall — becomes evident only around the corner, in the smaller second gallery, where it is revealed to be the upturned base of a 15-foot fiberglass cast of the Statue of Liberty, piercing the wall like a stray rocket. Sculpturally speaking, it is an impressive feat. The addition of the mirror, however, makes it much more.
Whatever this mess is, Martinez seems to be saying, we are all in it, we are all of it, we are all implicated — there is no standing apart.
Roberts & Tilton, 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 549-0223, through Oct. 20. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.robertsandtilton.com
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