Artist Patrick Martinez plants his flag in the Los Angeles that tourists don’t see, unless they take the Boyle Ave. exit by accident. Pawnshops, street vendors and people trying to make a dollar outta 14 cents inhabit Martinez’s colorful paintings and neon mixed media pieces. The palm trees and hills that LA is known for are always far away in the distance.
But Martinez, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, isn’t just an observer. He is a champion of his surroundings, humanizing the people on the street and their struggles, and a voice for their causes. He has employed foam hands, similar to those found in sports arenas but shaped as handguns, to distill the effects of a down economy and created hats for a fictitious Arizona Wetbacks baseball team to castigate the rhetoric of Arizona immigration laws.
Martinez recently opened an exhibition, "Hustlemania," at Known Gallery in LA. It is an ambitious show. Its centerpiece is a beautifully executed sculpture made of bronze and colored resin. The subject is a thug holding two handguns, shooting streams of water that arc harmlessly into a pool at his feet. The softening of a hard archetype is a common theme in Martinez's work, which the artist reveals in this interview to be as personal as it is political.
Patrick Martinez Quick Facts
- Born in 1980
- Los Angeles based artist
- Gradute of Art Center College of Design
- Attended Pasadena City College prior to ACCD
One thing I love about your work is the range and how you seamlessly move from one medium to another.
It’s just all about the concept. I’m big on concept. When I’m painting, sometimes I’ll leave things unfinished, you know mess about with the paint and experiment, scratch into things, use different brushes, and really go at it with energy. But when it comes to the neon, it’s kind of straightforward. It’s blunt. It’s this refined idea. It’s words, trying to evoke an emotion. There’s no messing about. It’s blue and it’s purple and it’s on this black acrylic plex backing, similar to what you see in the city, similar to a storefront. That was the idea behind it. Taking from the city – like taking an open sign or an income tax sign – remixing it and putting it back in the city or the gallery.
When you see something in bronze, you think, “Oh, what is that? It must be really important.”
What about the statue?
That was a year and three months in the works. I look at art history as reference. For example, the Fresh Produce piece is contemporary version of a still life. And this bronze piece is a contemporary version of a grandiose statue. When you see something in bronze, you think, “Oh, what is that? It must be really important.” This guy is kind of like this made up character. It’s using different materials and introducing new materials with the idea of a statue. [I thought] it would be kind of humorous to have the guns be water guns shooting out water. It actually has a function.
Is it modeled after a person?
It’s inspired by figures in the city, not really a specific person, but archetypes. Being involved and growing up with this street culture, having friends who are gang members. People I knew were gangsters and graffiti artists and skaters -- that’s my foundation and roots. I pull from that, visually. That’s where it comes from, me listening to rap music, and being involved in the record industry and rap magazines. The guy is modeled after – it’s an idea, a guy full of hot air, and that’s why he’s got blow valves in him. He’s kind of like an inflated version of himself, a balloon almost.
Speaking of balloons, balloons are a recurring motif in your art. And there’s always something light in your pieces. I wouldn’t say a sense of humor, but a twist.
I hear that a lot. One guy said, “You make the unapproachable approachable.” Like those guys who are super hard and you think they’re straight up gangsters, but if you put an ice cream bar in his hand then he becomes this regular guy. I say, “Well, they are regular guys.” So I try to paint them in that light. And I like to play with that idea, literally, of hard and soft things -- here’s this hard gangster guy with a soft ice cream pop, like he has this Pink Panther ice cream bar in his hand, so it’s compromising for him and his image. Even in the materials. I did this foam hand [holding a gun] that was a silkscreen. The hard idea of this gun that’s shooting people, but it’s this soft foam hand that’s pink. Whenever I have the opportunity to play with those two things, I try to look for an opportunity. That’s why the balloons come up a lot. I see them a lot in the city, and where I live there are people trying to sell things -- massive amounts of products, inflatable products along with other products. I’m attracted to the color, kind of like the idea of so much of it, the congestion, claustrophobic, almost, like the city. That’s where I pulled that from.
Your family is another recurring theme. They appear in your paintings. Can you talk about them a little bit?
My dad, and all of his brothers were artists, either drawing or painting or doing something. My dad was a photographer. He took photos when he was younger, and he had his own black and white room in his apartment. When he had us he had to start making money so he kind of dropped that. He used to make jewelry as well.
Have you seen his photos?
When I was younger, he showed me. He had prints, black-and-white stuff. He grew up in LA, south LA. He would just have pictures – just random photos, this little kid with a gun. This was when I was drawing comic book characters, like 12 or something, and I was tripping out on that.
He was a street photographer?
He was more about that, journalism. His theme was: I have a camera and I’m going to walk around the city, and just take photos. That’s what he did. He had crime scenes, weird stuff. Just the LA landscape, kind of documenting his family. It’s really crazy to see that stuff from back in the day. Cars, obviously, were different. Hairstyles. Fashion. That’s stuff I was looking at when I was 12 or 11.
I’m interested in people’s stories and being able to paint that in the faces says a lot.
Now you paint streetscapes. And you seem to express yourself in the portraits and the expressions of the faces. In a way, that seems to be your language, the faces tell the story.
I’m interested in people’s stories and being able to paint that in the faces says a lot. I think the people that I paint, sometimes they are people that I don’t know, but I want to pull from that and try to find some kind of emotion in their face and pull it out. Most of the people, I do know. I like that because they’re familiar to me. They’ve told me stories. I know certain things about them. I think when I’m painting them, it’s more of a journey, and it’s fun.
You’re painting these gritty scenes of people down on their luck. But there are bright spots. Do you see the future in a hopeful light?
I’m an optimistic person. These are just the thoughts that I have sometimes. I try to put a humorous spin on them sometimes. It is a sort of melancholy topic, but there is hope. I think if one person can see something about a painting, maybe I shouldn’t feed my daughter Pepsi every day, I think that’s going to help them out a little bit, hopefully. I think that’s something positive. I’ve gotten calls and emails from teachers, people who have told me “Wow, that’s a pretty eye-opening piece.” They’ll write me a long email about it. I think that’s the silver lining. That’s the flip side of something kind of melancholy or something so cold. It’s something that can be referenced to make a point.
The streetscapes are full of life. It’s definitely a place that doesn’t feel threatening, just a field of activities.
Full of color. The sun, the air. People going about their daily routines trying to get ahead and some of those people are going to get ahead and push forward. And produce. They’re going to do something great.
“Hustlemania” is on view at Known Gallery through April 9, 2011 at 441 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA, knowngallery.com.
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter.
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