Virginia Martinsen's 'Face on Mars' at ATM Gallery

Abstract expressionism is now so embedded in our culture—accepted as a kind of brand name—that new work too often reflects our complacency with the style; the visions are bland, sloppy, or ill-conceived, aspiring to little more than unfocused doodling (à la early Cy Twombly) or, worse, inoffensive mélanges of color that corporations buy for their lobbies.

So when a young newcomer shows up, in her first solo show, with a bold approach, mature ideas, and a tendency for restraint, it's almost startling. Such is the case with 28-year-old Virginia Martinsen, who brings unhurried vigor and a somber palette to her particular method of action painting. Inspired by her visits to the castle of Austrian wild-man Hermann Nitsch (performer/paint-thrower/blood-spatterer), Martinsen pours a solution of oils, varnish, and dry pigment onto a canvas lying flat and, with only a little guidance, lets the puddles flow. It may sound simple, but Martinsen brings evident seriousness to whatever decisions she makes (particularly about when to stop). The work is elegant and haunting, a combination of brooding darkness, watercolor-like delicacy, and powerful movement. In a smaller painting, The Accidental By-Product (her term, actually, for all of her work), a pale area tries to resist an encroaching sea of black, reaching out, on one side, with only the thinnest of pathetic tendrils. On several canvases, inky floods coalesce around yellowish oval sacs, suggestive of a central, organizing force. Many of Martinsen's titles, in fact, refer to philosophic conceptions of God, but even without them, her works bear a bracing spiritual substance.

'Textual Landscapes'

Pollock meets E.T.? Martinsen's Second Sighting of the Ilkley Moor Alien
Courtesy ATM Gallery
Pollock meets E.T.? Martinsen's Second Sighting of the Ilkley Moor Alien

Details

Virginia Martinsen:
'A Face on Mars'
ATM Gallery
621 West 27th Street, 212-375-0349
Through October 17

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The advertising jingle for that LED-inspired toy from the 1970s, Lite-Brite, joyfully sang about "making things with light"—a phrase that seems a better title for this intriguing grab bag of works that offer up a charmingly retro sensibility, notably in the use of LED grids. Ben Rubin uses them for playful linguistics; in one sculpture, a sequence of six-letter words from Nabokov's Lolita suggest Humbert Humbert undergoing the psychiatric test of association. In another—a maquette for what will eventually adorn the Public Theater's lobby—silver-framed reader boards, hung in Christian-cross alignments, display expressions from Shakespeare that start with "O!," "No," and "A." The amusing combinations ("O Vain Fool!," "No plot," "A bank of rue") turn the Bard into Ionesco.

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'The Experience of Green'

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