“To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible: this is what is at stake in modern painting,” suggests the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. He proposes two distinctions in contemporary art; those forms which cater to the nostalgia for an unattainable ‘wholeness’ and those ‘ingenious’ forms – to which he gives the name ‘postmodern’ – through which the very impossibility of this attachment is what is presented by the artist. It is this dialectic – rather than the easy acceptance of one position over the other – that Jason Martin makes his territory. For in the light of such thinking it is it is well-neigh impossible for the young painter today, any longer, to make the romantic, heroic gesture. Perhaps the American Expressionists – Rothko with his sublime saturated canvases, Pollock with his visceral viscous lines – were the last for whom this was possible with any degree of certainty or innocence. Now the postmodern artist (and it might be argued because of the accidents of history we are all postmoderns now) is in the position of the philosopher. The work he makes is not governed by pre-established rules and cannot be judged by familiar categories, for it is these very rules and categories for which the art is searching.
Jason Martin, a one time graduate of Goldsmith’s, has limited the possibility of the ‘gesture’ within his painting to create a level of detachment and objectivity, though he has not erased it completely. Each painting begins as an entirely zinc white surface over which he lays subtle layers of pigment to create ‘a floating transparent veil of colour’ which he then ‘rakes’ with either a section of draft excluder or a comb-like piece of metal or board. This is an act of faith, a journey across the panorama of the surface in which the history of the painting’s making, the trace left by his chosen implement are integral to its ‘meaning’ and ‘interpretation’. For these are not the cathartic, expressive, calligraphic marks of the modernist, rather they seem to be asking, where now with painting? What is still possible within its narrow confines?
Martin’s work commands the gallery space. It is architectural – painting as sculpture – and has a self-confident, even arrogant sense of its own presence, opening up the volume of the surface to the viewer. While his language is entirely abstract, his work is made in the world and, therefore, refers, obliquely, to it; to the body, to the movement of light, to organic forms, to the processes of making which can still be seen retained at the painting’s edges, where the history of the layers that have gone into constructing the surface are still visible like striations in rock.
And there is, of course, colour; monochromatic colour that is at once subtle and complex, fan-like arcs and loops of black on black, organic feathers of ox-blood in Fecund and shifting tones of white that undulate across the surface of the large horizontal panorama Untitled 2004, slashed by two diagonal flashes of creamy yellow that run from top to bottom, attracting and refracting light in balletic shafts that shimmer and glimmer and move. In the front gallery are two works that have been made in situe. A large tondo and a third of a circle covered in, what looks like, molten gold which has dripped and collected on the floor. Abstract they may be but they appropriate some of the drama and dynamism, some of the luxury and self-assertion of Aztec images of the sun. Within all these works Martin acknowledges a dichotomy: the desire to find a reductive purely painterly language alongside the human imperative to make work that ‘speaks’ on a more visceral level. But these paintings insist that there is no going back to the discredited utopianism of modernism. For as Jürgen Habermas wrote in ‘Modernity – An Incomplete Project’, “the avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.”
Jason Martin Day Paintings at the Lisson Gallery, London from 21 April to 22 May 2004
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004
Images © Jason Martin 2004. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery