LOS ANGELES — Paintings about painting are really about life, proposals for how it might be lived. In Chris Martin’s new work, Amy Winehouse figures centrally as an embodiment of the Saturn return, an astrological period occurring every 30 years during which we are confronted with major life transitions, the first beginning in our late 20s as adulthood makes its demands. At David Kordansky Gallery, Winehouse is cast as the latest in a line of musicians who did not survive their first Saturn Return, with predecessors including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Despite the title of the show, Saturn Returns, and its thematic ambitions, the connection between Martin’s work and Winehouse’s death feels superficial. The paintings address her in a literal manner, with a towering portrait of the singer/songwriter that sadly lacks her mercurial qualities and photographs of Winehouse glued onto various canvases. Celestial imagery suggests Saturn’s influence on our lives, while playboy cartoons and photos of animals outnumber the Winehouse pictures (perhaps suggesting the singer’s dissipated lifestyle — and if so, weakly). However, I often found myself overlooking the framework of the exhibition, instead focusing on Martin’s approach to painting, specifically painting with freedom from the strictures of taste.
Taste, being governed largely by convention, is a real killer when it prevents discovery and upheaval. As Martin remarked in a 2014 Hyperallergic “Beer with a Painter” interview, “there is the idea of making ‘good’ paintings … the finest, most beautiful, high quality paintings. For me, that was a terrible burden. I started not worrying about whether it was a good painting, and instead thinking … I don’t care if it’s a good painting, but it is something that is emotional or important for me to make.” Winehouse makes sense as a muse for Martin, since she did whatever she pleased regardless of how bad it looked.
While Martin’s capacity to suppress judgment leads to exceptional work, it might also be the cause of his weakest canvases, which include all the representational images. His three paintings of frogs, thinly painted in day-glo pink or green, his enormous Amy Winehouse portrait, and his equally outsized “Smoker” (2011) lack the depth of exploration and surprising decisions that potentiate his abstractions. The portrait and the frogs especially remind me of Julian Schnabel’s “Big Girl” paintings from 2001, a series of unbelievably large, unbelievably lazy paintings of a girl with her eyes obscured by a horizontal swipe of the brush (Martin cites Schnabel as an influence during the interview quoted above). “Smoker” shows a skeleton with a lit cigarette, or maybe a blunt, in obvious reference to van Gogh’s “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette” (1885–86) as well as to Winehouse’s notorious crack habit. It strikes me as little more than a deskilled knock-off of the van Gogh and, like the frogs and the portrait, incurious and flat-footed.
Of the many abstract paintings, one monumental canvas is composed of serpentine vertical forms (“Untitled,” 2015) and could be a minimalist exercise but for Martin’s disinterest in coloring within the lines, as well as his decision to collage small photographs of Winehouse, roughly centered within the painting’s black circles. The photos feel out of left field, but add interesting layers — it’s the kind of odd move that makes Martin such a delightful artist.
Martin’s glitter paintings are the best works in this show. Transitions from one hue to the next generate an overall rainbow effect, as in his mammoth abstraction “TAZ (orbits),” from 2012. In a few of the smaller pieces he draws into the glitter with his fingers or a brush. A black canvas with silvery blue glitter (“Untitled,” 2016) looks for all the world like Martin was unable to resolve it, then finally decided to throw a Hail Mary by making the whole thing black and hitting the sparkles. He smartly kept the black thin and uneven, allowing earlier colorful layers to enliven the darkened surface. It works.
In “28” (Winehouse’s age when she died), a rainbow gradient of glitter has been laid over a sunset sky with a bottom horizontal layer in black, suggesting darkened hills or mountains. A powerful untitled painting from 2016 features glyph-like shapes cut from red velveteen, collaged and crudely stapled onto a sunset of saturated hues with a low horizontal band of green serving as a forest or hedge. These canvases are related to landscape only through their use of a cliché sunset as the first layer, but it doesn’t matter. Martin’s carefree invention and experimental materiality bubble over with a joy that radiates from these canvases right into the smile I found on my face while I was standing in front of them. They offer a convincing argument in support of Ovid’s advice: “Happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all.” In this regard, Martin’s strongest paintings are a worthy tribute to Winehouse’s unfettered life.
Chris Martin: Saturn Returns continues at David Kordansky Gallery (5130 W Edgewood Pl, Los Angeles) through May 21.