Like the Goddamn Internet

Lone Ranger and Tonto, 1998

Lone Ranger and Tonto, 1998

“Painting is just another virtual reality,” James Martin has said, “like the goddamn Internet.” His paintings especially, crowded with endless references that are alternately turned around and twisted or served straight, either dropped uncomfortably in a scene like an elephant in the room, or tucked in the corner to be easily ignored, are full to overflowing with the essential, the superfluous and the insane. One walks away from Martin’s paintings with a similar feeling one has surfing away from an odd discovery on the Web: “Why the hell would anyone make that?”

And that’s the point, sort of.

Early on in his 40-plus-year career, Martin was a rising star in the art world, part of the school known as “the mystic painters of the Northwest,” abstract painters informed more by metaphysical concerns than by the intellect. But Martin’s was a funhouse metaphysic. His debut came in 1955 when, in a multi-artist exhibition featuring serious paintings with titles like “Moon over Water Hemlock” and “Lunar Pines,” Martin showed a work called “Radio Active Rat.”

Martin may be a mystic, but he never gets too serious about transcendance. Religious imagery literally dances through his paintings (see the toe-tapping holy man in “Aging Hero, Dancing Monk”) but never as a sign of holier-than-thou earnestness. For Martin, the only sacred cow is the one floating in “Cow on Ceiling of First Baptist Church.” But he’s not trying to merely make fun of mysticism. He’s seeking enlightenment by way of burlesque. (See “J. on the Astrowagon” for directions.) The visual puns, absurd juxtapositions, and straight up sight gags are Martin’s means of killing the Buddhas of the high art world that stand in his way.

Which can be a serious business, after all. There’s a political edge to Martin’s vaudeville mysticism. The point then and now is to question the authority and legitimacy of the very art world that gives painters their authority and legitimacy. According to the critic Sheila Farr, Martin “sees the commercial art game for what it is: a Daliesque creation held up by little props and crutches, an artificial construct whose systematically escalating prices, like a Sunday sermon, reassure collectors that they are on the right path.” Having entered this game, Martin plays by subverting all the rules: he floods the market with his work; he gives away scraps, sketches and false-starts; he paints fast and carelessly, filling canvases with images that can be seen as either icons or clichés: Lone Rangers, master artists, mad monks, lions, tigers and bears…

Oh my. The daffiness of so much of his work makes you wonder if Martin’s studio is a padded room. Which brings us back to the question: Why would anyone in his right mind — especially one who seems on some level to disdain the very making of art — make this stuff? Think of it this way: there’s no more fervent believer than a heretic. And there’s no better heresy than a good joke.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).