Through November 23, the Speck Gallery features Circling Nothing: How I Learned to Have Faith and Just Drive by C.J. Martin. We asked C.J. to tell us more about how this body of work came about.
The most difficult part of talking about my artwork is narrowing the conversation, as I am thinking about a lot of things in the execution of this work. I could say it’s about psychoanalytic drive theory: it’s about Camus, a little about Kierkegaard, it’s about human frailty and futility, it’s about ritual and faith, it’s about the divine and the infinite, it’s about the Absurd and I could go on. All of these, though, are really about what it is to be in the world.
In the interest of narrowing the conversation I’d like to briefly tell you a little about the theory behind it, talk about some of my thoughts about painting and describe how this body of work changed and progressed as it developed.
The ideas behind my work largely come from psychoanalytic theory and the writings of Albert Camus. In short, the self is incomplete and lacking and as such, there is a desire to fill this lack and a drive to fulfill it. The problem arises from the fact that our desires fail to fill the lack we feel because it is inherently unfillable. This is what is described as the Absurd, a contradiction which cannot be reconciled. Jacques Lacan essentially describes the situation as a perpetual circling of a no-self full of nothingness, which served as inspiration for the title of the show. Camus calls for an acknowledgement and acceptance of the Absurd turning the drive into a function towards existential fulfillment, wherein the self does not feel lack. This idea of the drive exemplifies not only what my work is about, but also what I aim for my actual painting practice to be. I am trying to make the act of painting a function, however briefly, towards that type of fulfillment.
Painting is always already a record of itself. This is a phrase I often repeat to myself regarding the act of painting. What I mean is that painting is an index of a type of performance. It records the painter’s presence and movements. Some painters attempt to disguise the involvement of a human hand in their process, but I would argue that such an effort is significant in the interpretation of their work. The presence of a human hand in the making of my work is significant as I intend it as both the representation and embodiment of making myself present, both in the moment of creation and in the creation itself. It is important not only to express the presence of a Self, but also other related ideas. Within the concept of the Drive are aspects of human frailty and lacking. The type of mark I make is intended to embody a sense of that human frailty, I don’t control it too much, it need not be too precise.
Consider the idea of perpetually circling, there is a sense of constant repetition. That is in part where this body of work began, with a focus on the repetition of simple acts or gestures. Those gestures consisted of simply doing a thing and then another thing, etc. I was painting a series of consecutive lines, repeated down the surface of the painting. As the series progressed I started using gold, intended to deify these simple acts and create a connection to religious iconography.
The paintings started to become acts of ritual focused on nothing. I had the sense that they also needed something more than just the lines. In Drive #10 I laid down intended to deify these simple acts and create a connection to religious iconography would still be there whether it was the same action repeated or different actions or series of actions. During this time in my life I was reconnecting with faith and I began to think about various forms of religious rituals and how they relate to and connect with the ideas of the drive. In particular, a couple of examples came to mind, Roman defixio and orant figures from the Dogon people in Africa. A defixio was a Roman curse or spell tablet on which one would repetitively write a name or phrase with the purpose of eliciting a response from gods or ancestors. The Dogon orant figure was imbued with sacrificial materials repeatedly, eventually becoming encrusted with these materials.. Both of these affected the way I thought about the application of paint and graphite in the process of repetitious layering. Somehow in these acts there is the idea here of having faith and releasing control through the act of ritual and I have found that the act of painting is not so dissimilar.
The next step in the development of the work were the defixio pieces. Early on in the process I was screenprinting graphite images that I have always been attracted to for their ordinariness. The repeated pickle found in some of the work is an example of this. As they progressed it became clear that the simple act of repeating the layers of graphite marks was enough and the dispersed gold paint amplified the depth, allowed the massive number of layers to be more perceptible. The rest of the Drive series followed from here, with repeated layers of simple marks. It was not necessarily important that any layer modify or change the previous layer too much, but simply continue the act of the painting. I like the way that this reflects the way that we live our day to day lives, because this work is in so many ways a meditation on being in the world.
Correction (Here Now)
There are also a number of paintings in the show that are titled Correction and they may not immediately lend themself to this same idea of repetition, but it is present. I will admit that these pieces are about slightly different aspects of these concepts than the Drive series, but the acts of corrections, themselves, are repeated in much the same way. Again, I like the way the idea of corrections reflects a being in the world, we live our lives largely through a series of corrections to who we previously were.
As I have said, this work has largely been a meditation of what it is to be in the world and it has taught me that being present in the moment is incredibly important. While in the act of painting, for no matter how brief the moment, it is just me and the creation. It has taught me to have faith. To let go of everything else. To be here now. This parallels how we are in this world. we are not in our past and the future is uncertain, I may or may not be here tomorrow. The theory of the drive and the idea that we are perpetually circling nothing, chasing things that won’t help, is melancholy. But it doesn’t have to be if we look up and realize one thing. The entire history of the universe, everything has led to this moment and I am here. You are here. The time is now. It can be beautiful, if we will only let it be.
C. J. Martin