June 15 – September 19, 2020
Ryan Martin’s Thirsty Tide exhibition at Elizabeth Houston Gallery ambitiously and deftly engages with two greater intertwined themes: humans’ complicated relationship to the environment and the changing cultural signs of generational difference among our peculiar species.
In this series of vivid paintings, Martin portrays some of the ambivalence and conflicts humans have with their larger environment, now more than ever. Intensifying the luminous sensations with which he imbued individual portraits of adolescence in Moxie, the previous series of drawings and mixed media he exhibited at Elizabeth Houston Gallery in 2019, Martin more fully fleshes out each depiction through saturated hues of oil applied to canvas.
In each of Thirsty Tide’s thirteen individual works, Martin tightly rings the depicted face with corporeal haloes made up of the bodies of other living beings. In some cases these other beings overlap or impinge on the human faces themselves, as with the octopus tentacles woven through the hair of its human counterpart in “Concord Gray,” or the large dark scorpion affixed to the cheek of Martin’s human subject in “Hella Marmalade,” its pincers framing the left eye of its human mount.
The timeliness of each picture’s title – e.g., “Rosa Fleek,” “Clap Back Copper,” or “Honeysuckle Deets” — draws on contemporary speech culture that is very of the moment. Meanwhile, the flora and fauna, which not only surround their neighboring human faces but are positioned as if to envelop them, suggest a more timeless relation to nature.
Continuing with some of the magic light and beautiful sun-dappled faces of his own Southern California origins that inform his earlier work, Martin deepens those references with color and illumination choices that suggest both tropical climes and hyper-real moments of civilization with muted reddish glows suffusing some portraits, and, in others, neon specimens popping out to insist on their existence for the viewer.
Embedded within impressions of watery immersion that evoke the rising tides of global climate change alluded to in the show’s overarching title, the intimacy of these depictions of people with nature – almost to the point of merging – suggest the combined feelings of vulnerability, menace and loss that each of us might experience in relation to other creatures of the natural world. That intertwined closeness also suggests some of the sense of constriction so many have been undergoing in recent seasons impacted by social shutdown and physical isolation in response to the global pandemic.
Fully available for viewing in the digital realm, the original works in Thirsty Tide will also be hung in the Elizabeth Houston Gallery space, where the physicality of their images will continue to offer material as well as striking imagistic presences throughout the duration of the exhibition.
– Brian Karl
Brian Karl is a long-standing cultural worker who has curated as well as written and taught extensively about contemporary art. He has written for Art in America, Art Practical, Hyperallergic and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, among many others.
Ryan Martin was born in Southern California. He currently lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area where he attended the California College of the Arts, studying under his mentors Jack Mendenhall and the late Yee Jan Bao. Martin’s artwork has been highlighted by numerous media including THE ADVOCATE, CHIC TODAY MAGAZINE, and THE ART OF MAN. He has exhibited widely across the United States, including Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art, San Francisco, CONTEXT Miami Art Fair and VOLTA New York.