Jul                   JULIA SAN MARTIN iSan Martin


Monologues:Solo Exhibition, Sala Gasco Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile

Text: Raúl Zamudio Taylor, curator, critic writer.


Julia San Martin: Your Silence Is Deafening



Julia San Martin’s artistic corpus to date runs the gamut of sources within art history and the culture-at-large. Based in New York City and Chile and sidestepping the more overt political subject matter in art from the latter country, her recent work addresses themes of topical nature. Her earlier paintings, however, seem to be marked by an exploration of dichotomies including representation/pure abstraction, figure/ground, negative/positive space, and what Jacques Derrida conceptualized as the parergon/ergon. This last binary refers, respectively, to the margins of a work and/or what resides beyond it, or of the work as unified gestalt meeting its liminal point and what transcends it. If these artistic investigations seem like a strain of Formalism absent of criticality, San Martin’s artistic vocabulary can also encompass the architectonics of the spaces in which her paintings are presented, i.e., Derrida’s parergon/ergon.  In this instance her work is more installation than traditional painting, and it may be useful to think of Gordon Matta-Clark and his architectural interventions to understand how social space is essential for San Martin’s practice. Her Still Silent series of paintings made between 2006 and 2012 underscore this all too well.  


One monumental canvas measuring 93 x 113 inches, for example, consists of large passages of blackish indigo that fade into an off-greenish band toward the top of the painting. While the interplay of these two colors and the gradations between them evoke Color Field and post painterly abstraction, albeit even in their muted and melancholic chromatics, what are of equally effective are the other compositional tropes integral to it. For the painting is unframed, ostensibly not primed with gesso or an undercoat, and pigment does not completely extend to the canvas’ edges but left raw and untouched. But there is more here than meets the eye: the paint was mixed with small amounts of the artist’s blood and the foundation on which she makes her marks is a bed sheet. San Martin’s rubbing up against art history here is nothing short of ambitious: it deftly cites Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) that many have construed was his response to Jackson Pollock’s signature modus operandi of laying his canvases on the floor and then applying his “drip” technique onto their surfaces. As a bed sheet indirectly stained with the artist’s blood, is San Martin also referring to menstruation, sex, and birth as well as dreams because of the signifier of what we use nightly in the most private of spaces? The painting also elegantly interfaces with the wall vis-à-vis its installation. Its midpoint is the exhibition room’s corner with one half mounted flat against one wall while the other half has multiple, undulating folds created by vertical rolls that begin at the painting’s top and extend to the bottom and seem to undulate like energy waves across the picture plane. Apart from the formal idiosyncrasy and transformation of what in lesser artistic hands would be a two-dimensional endeavor, San Martin is able to expand painting into other registers through a critical Formalism.


Formalism has often been erroneously thought to be only of the Clement Greenberg variety. However, preceding the New York art critic was the Formalism developed by the Moscow Linguistic Circle (1915-1924) and the semiotics of Roman Jakobson, and later on with the Prague School Structuralists (1928-1939). Their view of form was not that it was devoid of the social world of which it is a part, but that matter is always already embedded with signification. It is within this critical framework of Formalism that San Martin’s art becomes discursive vis-à-vis a somewhat aberrant canvas: in centrally resting at the corner of the two walls, her painting recalls that Modernist work par excellence that radically proposed a new cosmology of pure abstraction via an architectonic maneuver that positioned the political potential of non-representational art: Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and that he installed in the corner of The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10.  


In the same way that Malevich’s transformation of painting from two dimensions to three rested on the mounting of Black Square in the corner, San Martin used this trope to delineate a myriad of questions around painting but it’s also symbolic of where the artist finds herself within a shifting nexus of her corpus to date. While the painting is two dimensional on one wall and three dimensional on the other, it conveys teleology of non-representational art’s past and future. The former entails a Modernist pedigree while the latter points to a post-Modern present and beyond. It can also be a metaphor where the artist has now ventured to artistically go, which is the subject of her current exhibition titled Monologues.


Monologues consist of figurative paintings that are somewhat linked to San Martin’s previous pure abstractions particularly in the techniques of application. San Martin has always evinced a broad array of mark-making. And these new works are no different: from what appear to be faint and diluted passages of pigment, to staining and bleeding, to more expressive tactile brush strokes, and even in one instance she has incorporated the strategy of folded fabric akin to her more, sculptural non-representative works of the past. In Yeah, I said it (2016), which is made from paint, fabric and support foundation, San Martin evinces métier that ostensibly conflates Steve Parrino and Phillip Guston. The painting consists of a cartoonish like figure in profile facing to the right that also happens to be rendered on brownish, mustard colored fabric folded at an angle to the left. In turn, the fabric rests on a planar foundation painted black. The figure is depicted on cloth that one might find at a garment store, and its seemingly precise fold gives the painting theatricality as if the textile is a curtain on a stage. Adding to the allusion of theater is its rather off-the-cuff title. The title and those of other paintings in the exhibition are derived mostly from fragmented, overheard conversations in New York City’s subway system. 


San Martin often rode they subway during her residency in New York City and she was witness to a myriad of quotidian vernacular expressions that she has incorporated in her compositions. Thus her role as visual artist one could say extends to anthropology, that is to say more precisely conducting ethnographic research. However, because the day-to-day banter is de-contextualized and inserted into her paintings, these “readymade” articulations take on a whole other level of meaning. Unlike her previous works that were very broad in size, in which some could be no smaller than a hand while others larger than human scale, the Monologue series of paintings are somewhat uniform in their format. Most are 16 x 20 inches and consequently are more intimate. Whereas the large canvases had a propensity to subsume the viewer, now there is a different relationship arising from scale that engenders the viewer to engage equivalently with the paintings’ broad range of emotive and cerebral qualities that can also have an uncanny way to be confrontational. Ostensibly playful and innocuous, San Martin’s paintings have a feigned artifice underscored in the following titles of just a few of the exhibited artworks: Say it, Enough is enough sun, Gossip folk, Do u know what I mean, and You are a pendeja all painted in 2016.  As these titles make quite clear, there is concomitant comedy and tragedy in the paintings that allow their accessibility but they carry with them a political and critical valence that are revelatory of the social machinations of daily existence.  In You are a pendeja, for instance, commentary on misogyny reflecting Latino machismo uses the pronoun you as way to implicate the viewer as both subject and object of sexist derision. One the one hand, one could assume that the figure is the subject of the work’s title; on the other hand, there is an abstract form directly in front of the figure’s mouth akin to a speech scroll thus raising the possibility that it is the figure who is directing the invective. The painting’s narrative is coupled by what seems to be a deliberate and ersatz innocence of compositional rendering.  San Martin’s painterly creations are at once confident and masterful, though because of their cartoonish quality they are almost cursory at the same time. 


Having affinities with the tradition of figuration that encompasses caricature, You are a pendeja is a confluence of sources that the artist has configured into something uniquely her own. Not only does one detect Phillip Guston in the way that San Martin exaggerates the body but her imaginary beings also recall George Condo, Rose Wylie, and even Juan Davila. These figurative elements are surrogates or archetypes, even; however, their protean qualities seemingly transmute the anthropomorphic into zoomorphic and vice versa. The figure in You are a pendeja, for example, is ostensibly human and female as underscored in the lipstick that she presumably dons. Yet the slippage into the realm of the potentially zoomorphic ups the ante as the female form is dehumanized. Like the aforementioned purely abstract painting made from a bed sheet rendered in pigment that is mixed with the artist’s blood, the anthro-zoomorphic nature of the figure adds a political dimension in alluding to submission and the subaltern as a visual parallel of what the text proclaims: You are a Pendeja. This double entendre where it is difficult to surmise to whom the pronoun addresses, that is, to the figure in the painting or the person viewing the artwork, is integral to other works as well.  In You know what I mean, the figure resembles something out of Equus, as it stands in front of what looks like subway car doors. Nonetheless the door has other allusions in its amorphousness: for the barrier between middle and background could easily be any other type of threshold of a sociopolitical nature. Other works also create this level of conceptual tension between image and text: in Systems are Wrong an isolated figure painted in a highly saturated red is facing what appears to be a trio of four-legged animals that could conceivably be lamb or sheep since we cannot quite make out their age, or even young goats? The composition is striking in its subtext of violence. The reddish figure seems to be inflamed with anger as the three creatures evoke a look of arrested (dis) engagement. Incendiary creations such as Systems are Wrong that provoke are buoyed by other paintings that seem more like philosophical exegesis of which Now the Martians is an embodiment. Here the text is oblique though direct; for what is written across the painting is simple yet it leaves the viewer in a state of intellectual despair: see…? The conundrum is simple but nuanced: does the word “see” and attendant question mark refer to what entails in experiencing the painting? Is the artist mocking the traditions of mimetic reproduction as equivalent to the implausible notion of life on other planets, in this case Mars? And if so, could this philosophical joke being played on us rest on what Marcel Duchamp referred to as Western art’s retinal centrism, or what the critic Rosalind Krauss formulated in another related context as the Optical Unconscious? Rife with humor and critique, San Martin’s painterly animated lexicon of meticulous rendered caricatures of the beautiful grotesque aesthetically charge Monologues with a powerful and seductive quality.          


Apart from diverse subject matter and the multiplicity of narratives conveyed with an economy of means, San Martin’s work in general contributes to the discourse around painting through her unique métier forged by an expansive formal vocabulary. Not one to mince words, her new corpus articulates a myriad of issues and concerns pertinent today of which some of these are: gender inequality, questions of class and social inequity, and the political dimension of the everyday. Julia San Martin is an artist of her time as attested by the artworks that constitute the exhibition Monologues. As such, the exhibition is true to its title: for in it we find an artist who speaks through her paintings what is necessary but often is not want we want to hear. In this sense, Julia San Martin reminds us that our normative complacency, which we unconsciously internalize as a kind of self-inflicted oppression, is a form of silence that can be deafening.    



Raúl Zamudio