Upon entering the exhibition space containing the thematically disparate works of César Martínez, one is overwhelmed by the artist’s productivity during his ArtPace residency. The soft, warm vanillas and pinks of the gallery walls are in high contrast to the muscularity of the work. However, this delineation of color is typical of salon-style exhibitions, which embrace works with distinct themes within a common space. The four areas of investigation in Martínez’s exhibition are the reinvigorated Bato/Pachuco/Ruca¹ series, the constructions, the Remolino series and the monoprints. These themes, which have been the focus of the artist’s attention in recent years, are transformed in the works of the ArtPace exhibition.
Martínez is widely recognized for his figurative works, including his Bato/Pachuco/Ruca series, a group of imaginary portraits grounded in real life. Cropped, solitary sitters set against vibrant color fields gaze at us from each of these portraits. Some of the figures metamorphosize into cubist forms through the vivid juxtaposition of color that highlights the subjects’ “personality.” Painting with oils for the first time, Martínez has given his characters renewed life through the depth and color that this medium yields.
El Mazo con Football Jacket and La Chata are two works from this series that particularly come to life. El Mazo con Football Jacket is unusual in that the figure is cropped higher up his torso than Martínez normally allows. The features of the angular, dark blue face are seen coalescing into a form that is set off by the hot pink background. The resulting figure/ground tension within the canvas adds to the dynamic quality of the painting. La Chata depicts a beautiful and voluptuous woman who is, undoubtedly, the center of attention. The cool blue of her dress, coupled with the green background, allows her warm yellow skin tones to radiate, while the red flower in her hair accents her exotic features. La Chata appears ready to burst out of her rectilinear confines.
Opposing societal perspectives of women are explored in Martínez’s two large constructions of found wood. In both Nike de San Anto and Dos Classics, the scraped drawings of Nike, Winged Victory contrast with cleanly incised female torsos. The crude and crusted surface of these constructions directly contrasts to Martinez’s elegant monoprints. Even so, the artist achieves a graceful lilt in the combination of wood colors within the marked figures. The Nike figure is a European image imported into a San Antonio park to celebrate Mexican independence. This historically referential figure is paired with the image of a younger female torso appropriated from a graffitied wall in a men’s room of a local bar. These objects of desire explore the Madonna/Whore duality: the elevated female figure—the Nike, and the sexual entity—the graffiti torso.
Hanging next to the Nike and Venus constructions are two Remolino (Whirlwind) paintings. Typically, works from this series contain a desolate landscape, often within a Mexican pyramid form. These images are overlaid with what seems to be a splattering of paint and dirt applied in a circular swirling motion. The finish surface exudes an oriental aura while simultaneously conveying the sensation of the rugged terrain of Martínez’s south Texas.²
The two stacked rows of recent monoprints hanging on the adjoining walls of the gallery represent Martínez’s most fluid and evocative works to date. These pieces evolved from a 1994 printing session in Austin. The exhibiting monoprints are less than half of the sixty-seven prints he created during the ArtPace residency. The prints hint of horns, masks, wings, pyramids, crosses and other tantalizingly cryptic imagery that evoke mystery. The subtle use of rich colors is achieved with apparent ease through the multilayered printing of images on each sheet of paper. The prints are notable for their beauty; if taken further, they could easily have become kitsch. With this body of work, Martínez employs the ideas that have occupied him for the last several years in order to forge ahead in a vibrant new direction.
Benito Huerta is an artist and writer living in Arlington, Texas
Acknowledgements: This essay is a revision of a review originally printed in ArtLies, A Texas Art Journal, Number 17, Winter 1997–1998. And, I would like to thank Amanda Branly.
¹ “Bato” is a Chicano slang term for “guy” or “dude” while “ruca” is the female equivalent, and “pachuco” is the term for a Mexican-American zoot-suiter of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
² César Martínez was born in Laredo, Texas situated on the border with Mexico.