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’

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.

Elsewhere, Jim Campbell miniaturizes the Jumbotron by using LEDs to present shadowy images of moving figures, recorded in Grand Central. You’ve seen this kind of thing before, but Campbell’s polished treatments neatly relate the anonymous nature of a crowd. In other work, Marina Zurkow presents a cartoon, in a flattened style reminiscent of early anime, that pans across a city inundated by the floods of global warming, while Airan Kang offers a shrine to literature—an arrestingly colorful display, more like commercial design than art, of mocked-up books glowing with fiber optics. Then there are Alan Rath’s oddly-out-of-place robotic contraptions, which seem to have emerged from the prop closet of the famously cheesy Dr. Who.

Interrupting all of the fun, Korean artist Yongseok Oh has fashioned a strange and sometimes disturbing video montage, a literal patchwork of scenes from films and offbeat landscape footage—assembled to appear as one vista, but without today’s standards of seamlessness. Left visible, the sequences’ edges separate the silent, unconnected actions into boxes, so that nearby violence, for example, doesn’t distract from quiet contemplation—a world of detachment and dissociation not so unlike our own. Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, 505 W 24th St, 212-243-8830. Through October 31

‘The Experience of Green’

Seven square miles of red craft paper—wrinkled, twisted, crumpled—form another of Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen’s giant, organically inclined installations: this time, a grove of fantasized old-growth trees, impressively textured with thousands of layers and dramatically lit. This is immersion art, continuing a recent citywide trend of theatrics. Walking through, you may feel as if you’ve entered a children’s story or the set of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Spend enough time inside, and you’ll discover the title’s ecologically minded meaning: All of that red creates a retinal after-image of the complementary color when you exit. Briefly, the streets of DUMBO will be bathed in green. DUMBO Arts Center, 30 Washington St, Brooklyn, 718-694-0831. Through November 29

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2009

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