Walk into Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City and you will stumble into a murder scene.
A man lies dead in a bathtub. His wild-eyed assailant stands behind him, knife in hand, ready to strike again in case the deed is not done. Another figure reaches toward the murderer, futilely trying to put a stop to the death that has just transpired.
The ghastly scene is a sculptural installation by Los Angeles artist Daniel Joseph Martinez that riffs on one of the most famous paintings in Western history: Jacques-Louis David's late 18th century masterpiece "The Death of Marat," which depicts the bloody assassination of the French revolutionary thinker Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.
The unsettling aspects of Martinez's grisly installation don't end there. Each of the three sculptures bears the same face — that of the artist — for a tableaux that feels as much like a surreal nightmare as it does a forensic replay of one of the most well-known murders of the last 500 years.
To add to the drama, the piece is flanked by bleachers. Sit down to take it all in and you help transform this violent act into theater. Choose to stand around and you're on stage with victim and murderer, a character in a play about politics and violence.
It is the sort of delirious move that Martinez is known for: A piece that shocks as much as entangles the viewer.
"This is an attempt to look at who we are through our barbaric acts," says Martinez, seated on one of his bleachers. "We are complicit. If we can't admit that, how will we make the world a better place?"
Gallery founder Bennett Roberts describes the installation as a curious art historical memento mori: "It's troubling and fascinating. It breaks the mold."
Breaking the mold is something the artist has done for decades.
Martinez, 59, has a rugged face and sleeve tattoos, which give him the aspect of road-weary rocker, one who, in casual conversation might drop references to French philosophy and quantum physics. Throughout his career, he has created conceptual works that confuse and provoke through a wide range of ideas and materials.
In 2005, he paired white, minimalist paintings with wall text of unidentified extracts from Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf." The series, for San Antonio's Artpace, toyed with minimalist precepts as much as questions of race and power.
Two years later, for the Cairo Biennial, he created an animatronic version of himself experiencing death-like spasms. The installation (later shown at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach) was inspired, in part, by a scene in "Blade Runner," where a robot replicant short circuits and expires.
Titled "Call Me Ishmael, The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant" (a phrase taken, in part, from the writings of 20th century German philosopher Theodor Adorno), the sculpture was arranged so that the viewer stood over the flailing figure — a perspective that generated simultaneous sensations of power and helplessness.
"There is something about watching your own death ..." says Martinez, trailing off as he describes the experience of watching his rubber doppelgangers enduring such visceral moments.
But the work for which he is perhaps best known consists of just a handful of words.
For the 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York, Martinez created a series of museum admission badges that, when put together, read, "I Can't Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White." The piece stirred outrage and generated critical drubbings. Time magazine's Robert Hughes described them as a "cute one-liner." Another critic wrote of the show: "White is bad, we're told here, or utterly uninteresting."
Was this a sensational act of race-baiting? Or simply a statement of affirmation by someone who can't imagine being something they are not? In typical Martinez fashion, the work's ultimate significance lies with the viewer, whose own views on race inform its ultimate meaning.
For the artist, who is Mexican American, it was a response, in part, to a common rhetorical question he'd heard over the course of his life. "Stuff like, 'Who would want to be Mexican?' or 'Who would want to be black?'" he explains. His badges were intended to serve as "an interruption of a hegemony."
More than two decades after its debut, the badges are the rare biennial piece whose implications the art world is still trying to pick apart.
Born and bred in Los Angeles, Martinez is an artist who has always been intrigued by difficult and complex ideas. Teachers at a Catholic high school helped cultivate a love for a whole library's worth of subjects, including art, history, philosophy and literature.
"I'm a voracious reader, and I have a natural hunger for knowledge," he says. "But they really beat it into me."
This profound intellectualism was something he further delved into at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s, where his undergraduate professors were figures such as Michael Asher, a pioneer of conceptual art. (In 1970, Asher quite famously reconfigured the walls of the art gallery at Pomona College, leaving a section of it open to the elements 24 hours a day — a piece that transformed the nature of a once-exclusive space.)
"[Asher] offered the idea of post-studio, that you could have ideas that weren't confined to studio art," says Martinez. "That things were driven by ideas and that you then look for the right form by which to communicate that idea."
This mind-opening experience was followed by a spell working as a studio assistant for German conceptualist Klaus Rinke, a protegé of the influential German artist and theorist Joseph Beuys.
"He taught me what Beuys was about," says Martinez of Rinke, "that the line between teaching and art was nonexistent and that all art was political."
The experimental ethos he inherited from his mentors has marked his own practice, one that has been driven by ideas over commerce. Martinez isn't the sort of artist to crank out pretty prints for a fair.
Over his career, he has photographed incarcerated juveniles and created a series of grotesque photographic self-portraits in which he appears to be dismembering his own body (and therefore his ego) — an uncanny visual feat accomplished with the help of Hollywood film prosthetics. (He frequently works with Patrick Magee of the special effects house MageeFx.)
From 1997 to 2002, he helped run an alternative art space in downtown Los Angeles with fellow artists Glenn Kaino, Rolo Castillo and Tracey Schiffman called Deep River. Among other things, the space gave painter Mark Bradford, who will represent the U.S. at next year's Venice Biennale, his first show.
Like Beuys, teaching has been an important part of Martinez's intellectual equation. For 25 years, he has helped shape a generation of students at UC Irvine, where he counts now-established artists, such as sculptor Ruben Ochoa and installation artist Kori Newkirk, among his graduates.
Juan Capistran, a conceptual artist whose work has been shown at the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum, says he pursued his MFA at UC Irvine specifically to work with Martinez. "His influence is clear," he states via email. "I've learned to push the work, take leaps — sometimes not successful — shift gears, always trying to produce work that transcends and operates in a wider context."
These are the same exacting demands Martinez places on his own art.
For his current installation, the artist isn't just updating a famous 18th century painting into some sculptural meme. He is taking on the larger issues that shaped David's work when it was made and how it has shaped culture since.
There is, to begin with, the historical context of the painting — the French Revolution — which Martinez believes speaks to our own political moment. "You couldn't have had more inequity than you had during the French Revolution," he explains. "It was a revolt against aristocracy, the abuse of the king and queen, which was so extreme.
"Plus David wasn't just a painter, he was a participant. 'If you drink hemlock, I shall drink it with you.' That's what he said to [Revolutionary leader Maximilien] Robespierre as he was led to the guillotine."
The exhibition's incredibly unwieldy, if poetic, title is drawn, in part, from this expression of solidarity: "If You Drink Hemlock, I Shall Drink It With You or A Beautiful Death; player to player, pimp to pimp. (As performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade.)" It's a mouthful.
Other aspects of the installation refer to other historical and cultural elements.
The bleachers that transform Roberts & Tilton into a mini-theater allude to the plays that the infamous Marquis de Sade (also a revolutionary) used to stage while interned in a mental asylum. They also nod to a 1963 play by German author Peter Weiss, known as "Marat/Sade," that imagined a play about Marat's death as written by the Marquis and staged in the asylum of Charendon.
"My piece is an interpretation of all of those interpretations," says Martinez — albeit an interpretation that features cast copies of Martinez as both murderer and victim. These are so realistically produced, down to the human hairs on their arms, that it can feel uncommonly eerie to stand in the gallery chatting with Martinez as his silicone copies stab each other just over his shoulder.
In its own gory way, the piece takes the viewer back to the birth of modern democracy, to the French Revolution, where thousands died under the blade of the guillotine in the name of freedom.
"For me it seems useful to think back and mix up history," says Martinez. "How do we know who we are and what we are going to be if we don't know what we were?"
History has a way of idealizing events such as revolutions. Martinez reminds us that they are drenched in the basest of human instincts.
Roberts, who has worked with the artist for roughly half a dozen years, says the work's challenging nature is part of what makes it so intriguing. "Daniel is forcing the darkest side of possibility on the future," he says. "His forte is that he makes us all responsible for things that we often negate are part of our responsibility."
Martinez wouldn't have it any other way. "I get to make art — it's a privilege," he says. "Why do it if there's not a higher purpose?"
As in his other work, that exact purpose, however, always remains just a bit enigmatic, something for the viewer to untangle as they take their seat in the artist's carefully constructed asylum.
Daniel Martinez, "If You Drink Hemlock, I Shall Drink it with You or A Beautiful Death; player to player, pimp to pimp. (As performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade)," at Roberts & Tilton. On view through May 21. 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, robertsandtilton.com.