Sam Martin – Figure and Border

(Text to accompany Crystallise Borders by Sam Martin  at Arc One Gallery, 2012)

Recently I had the temerity to accuse Sam Martin of being an Abstract artist. This is despite the fact that his paintings are exclusively based on newspaper photographs that depict figures in the world. And that he clearly identifies with a great tradition of figurative painters, from Bruegel to Sickert to Tuymans. It’s even despite his background in illustration, and his enviable facility for observational drawing.

Lets be clear that it’s not just a resemblance to an Abstract look, although the argument could be made to a reader less sensitive than you. It is true that the subjects he paints often elude easy recognition. Also that an uncanny formal rhythm suffuses every layer of Martin’s work; from the source material he selects, (typically arrangements of figures that accentuate the repetition of form,) to the attenuated uniformity of his brushstrokes. It’s undeniable that figure and ground are happily interchangeable in his paintings, and that colour disengages from contour in a way that Kandinsky would admire. However it’s a much deeper affinity that leads to my conclusion.

It is his disregard for gravity. I realized this after he turned a painting sideways just before an exhibition opened, having changed his mind about which way was up. As an Abstract artist I recognize this equivocal attitude to orientation. It makes sense because our pictures have no natural referent, so they have no natural orientation; in other words any way is up. Whereas a picture premised on depicting figures in the world must include strong recommendations about which way is up, mustn’t it?

Yes, we all know about Georg Baselitz, but his inverted figures are calculated to affront our expectations. It is Martin’s ambivalence to orientation that is so sympathetic to the methodology of Abstraction. It’s an attitude that is deeply embedded in his practice. Not only does he change his mind about orientation after the room-sheet is printed, but he regularly rotates the canvas while he paints. Because of this his figures rest on an unresolved plane that pivots on a ruptured axis. They disengage from the representational context and transform into weightless units of formal currency, submitting to the verities of abstract composition rather than gravity and three-dimensional space.

Of course, to literally classify him an Abstract artist would be to miss the point. It would discount the plausible resemblance his pictures have to fragmented scenes that we encounter in our daily lives. When riding a peak hour train, for example, I see human figures that are segmented and contorted by modular spaces. They are interspersed with as many representations of human figures in reflections, on smart phones, iPads, newspapers, and billboards. It’s not hard to imagine Martin measuring the scene from behind an easel in the corner.

Even at their most dissolved his paintings never entirely abandon the figurative subject. His probing marks always posit the subject just beyond the threshold of recognition. He claws at the surface with stained fingers, grasping for purchase to pull the image into focus. In this way he achieves a fundamental subversion of the source material. News pictures are staged to deliver fast, unambiguous, and practical information. Yet through his unusual attention Martin finds in them nothing but porous borders and uncertain forms.

Paradoxically, it is faithfulness to the source material that necessitates his slippage into Abstraction. Or rather it is his consciousness of the materiality of his source; that it is not an image but a scrap of paper with an image printed on it. He understands the image as the property of an object’s surface. He holds it in his hand, turning it over and around at will because it has no weight or natural orientation. At the same time he sees that the objects contours are continuous with the spatial coherence of the printed image, and he paints this utterly transformed relationship between the figure and its border.

Bryan Spier  May 2012

Back to top