Cambridge, MA — I set out from my couch of the moment for some coffee since I am one of those murmuring morning people, the kind who requires a habit and a burnt tongue to prove to myself that I am, in fact, awake.
On the short walk down the cramped sidestreets of residential Cambridge, I come face to face with the broad glass windows of Meme Gallery — a storefront space with yellow strings like spokes suspending a purple totemic figure above a basin of water, placed in the middle of the gallery floor. Fabric contortions billowed and oozed along the walls, nightmares leaking through dawn and ceiling tiles, down the gallery walls. Am I awake? What the hell is this?
As is usually the case, the internet knew what it was and what was going on, and it also called my attention to a closing reception, complete with a blueberry pie from the institution that is Petsi Pies. All of this was on behalf of an artist who can only be described as bearing a discomfiting resemblance to a Roberto Bolaño character — the protagonist, perhaps, from one of those stories with an amphetamine pulse where the narrator gets double-crossed by a pimp-king in a dilapidated hotel on undisclosed urban outskirts, and there’s a kidnapping, and someone winds up sold into sexual slavery or something.
The artist is named Martin Renteria, a war hero of sorts from the battlefield that is international contemporary art. For most of this installation/exhibition/performance/call it what you will, the artist is present — has been present — every day for a few hours at a time à la MoMA’s Abramović exhibition, The Artist is Present.
From Mexico City, Martin is a performance artist — a term that I begin to suspect is being used more and more as a lazy stand-in for an eccentric which, Alice Fulton explains, is the “defining trait of postmodern aesthetics.”
Fulton, a poet, goes on to explain that eccentricity (meaning literally ‘out of center’) is a strategy of artistic deviance (defiance? there’s a reason those words are so close … ). Artistic deviance is a departure from accepted aesthetic standards in order to change and improve them. All of this out-of-center rule breaking is done because “as a form of novation [yeah, she uses that word], eccentric deviance is different … from the originality of Romanticism or the ‘make it new’ credo of modernism.”
How is it different?
Anything repeated or copied recognizably — that is, without enough off-the-beaten-path deviation — becomes derivative. Eccentric deviance gives way to our present day erratics of art — an unfortunate stand in for Susan Sontag’s sexier sounding erotics of art.
With this six-day installation — as brief as a breath — Martin puts some creatures on display. And though he is present every day from 4-7 pm, working manically in a strange, lenticular hat/mask that reshapes and shatters his face, the work on the walls is, he explains, a shift from the type of performance work he usually does.
Drawn from threads and synthetic fabric, the creatures on display have the Möbius strip quality of a nightmare collapsing constantly as it takes shape. They look like ‘animals’ that have walked out of one of Roberto Matta’s “psychological morphology” paintings — too strange and too far beyond recognition even for Dalí as a visual concrete referent. (Though the surrealist approach to drawing out the sub — or un- — conscious as an artistic tool is certainly at play, here). Except Martín has taken all this and turned it into stuffed animals.
Bedraggled and worn-looking. Soaked with traces of a very particular childhood nostalgia — the kind you find in along the frayed limbs of a worn teddy bear or the dangling button eye of a stuffed lamb. A heart of cotton with polyester personality.
The longer I look at them, the more it makes sense — and then Vela Phelan, one of the gallery owners, explains it: Martin is also a fashion designer — since an artist in the 21st century is nothing if not a swiss army knife: the good ones flip out skills and smarts in their many tools and blades to bend, to slice, to stitch, and not to yield an inch of unworked white art box at a gallery’s opening. These creatures are the three-dimensional sketches of an artist whose primary means of expression is the tactile, the textural, and the temporal. They’re pages torn from a sketchbook, spun into thread, tangled into forms and tacked to the wall’s empty spaces.
Saturday night at the closing party, Martin wears a snake-skin shirt with curved silver glasses that, at the right angle, suggest safety goggles. Vela explains Martin’s process to arrive at these creatures: a seamster’s exquisite corpse. He gathers fabrics in a time and place and then, gliding away on sensory autopilot, Martin pulls and pushes and feels the fabrics together with thread and anything else nearby into a slipshod textile snapshot — a memory composed into a tactile object. And yes, after some blueberry pie, we were very much encouraged to touch, squeeze, poke, jab, and experience them.
They were cushy too, for the Surrealist parent looking to make a deeply unconscious impression on an unsuspecting child. Who knows when or where these Matta-esque wild things will surface again. But when and where they do, you will probably be able to afford them.
Martin Renteria’s Maraña de Espacios Vaciosat was on view at Meme Gallery (55 Norfold Street, Cambridge, MA) from September 5 – 11, 2010.