Jean-Marie Martin

12 September 1996 - 2 October 1996
Opening Reception 12 September 1996 8pm

Main Gallery:

Toxic Landscapes

Mercer Union is pleased to present a solo exhibition of paintings by Brooklyn based artist Jean-Marie Martin. His recent paintings are produced with toxic materials such as lead and copper based paint, asbestos canvas and powder. Encased in safety glass, the painting Black Sea is made with anti-fouling copper based paint. The warning label reads that it should not be put in water although the product is commonly used to kill algae on sail boats. Martin uses abstract painting to pose questions about environmental law that prohibits the general public to use certain hazardous materials, although they are readily available for commercial use. Illegal for the general public to purchase, lead paint continues to be used for yellow highway lines and asbestos is still used for furnace insulation.

Born in Quebec, Martin received his Doctor of Fine Arts at New York University, and lives and works in Brooklyn. His most recent solo exhibitions include Galerie Les Trois Points, Montreal (1994, 1992), Kitchener/Waterloo Art Gallery (1992), Galerie Action, St Jean-sur Richelieu (1992), and Leo Kaman Gallery, Toronto (1989).

Brochure essay by Sally McKay:

Welcome to Toxic Landscapes. Keep paint chips away from children. Do not lick picture surfaces. Store only in well-ventilated area.

On first looking at Jean-Marie Martin’s paintings you think you’ve walked into a show of ’60s abstraction. And then you notice the labels warning of the work’s toxic materials: lead paint, asbestos canvas, an “anti-fouling” paint (toxic to fish) used to clean algae off the bottoms of boats. It turns out that Martin is using formalism to address some serious issues from the real world.

Jean-Marie Martin’s paintings themselves aren’t really all that dangerous–unless you eat them, or burn them and inhale the fumes. But just to be absolutely certain the artist has buried his pictures behind safety glass and layers of polyurethane. Martin goes to unnecessary lengths to protect us from this work. He makes sure we’ll notice it’s toxicity while also commenting ironically on public-health paranoia.

Toxic Landscapes is a bit like science fiction. The show seems to critique our culture from the vantage point of some near future where there’s been a return to the decadence of a formalist, art-for-art’s-sake, aesthetic. A future where art collectors value toxic substances as precious materials. Will lead paint function as the gold leaf of the 21st century?

But in fact these paintings belong to the present, and their toxic materials refer directly to the messy political and cultural soup of everyday life.

For all the potential hazards of manufacturing and working with traditional media, looking at an oil painting doesn’t draw our attention to environmental issues. Gold leaf and oil paint have the weight of tradition behind them, and don’t declare their toxicity. But lead paint is another story. Martin has to work hard to get his (well-gloved) hands on these painting supplies. He hunts through obsolete stock in ancient hardware stores, bribes industrial suppliers, wrangles, finagles, wheels, deals and plain lucks out. Martin’s materials are banned from use by the general public because of the environmental harm they do, and yet they are freely available to both industry and government. And though the warning label on Martin’s anti-fouling paint specifically says not to put it in the water, boat owners routinely use it to keep their hulls clean. There is a hypocrisy operating here that may be the worst environmental toxin of all.

Martin looks for hazardous materials that are like toxic doubles for art supplies. So what better support for lead paint than asbestos canvas? Coming from Quebec, Martin has a political relationship to asbestos. “A lot of people in Quebec make a living in the asbestos mines. The people who die of lung cancer are primarily miners who’ve been working years and years, without masks, and smoking 2-3 packs a day. But when you just mention the word asbestos, people think they’re going to die on the spot. Sure there are dangers, but it has evolved into something bigger. It’s the American way to get obsessed with whatever issue captures the imagination.”

Our attention slips from issue to issue, sound bite to sound bite, and it becomes increasingly difficult to reach any final conclusions that might let us act consistently. With so much to fear our floundering may be legitimate, but we end up passively reliant on the media for guidance and on warning labels for reassurance. We now live in a world where, no matter how much we value fish, we somehow can’t help pouring toxins into our rivers and lakes. We are immersed in so much conflicting information that to take practical steps seems impossible. And so, uneasy and confused, we continue to put anti-fouling paint on the bottoms of our boats.

And how do beautiful paintings function in such a society? We have made an arena in the middle of life and called it art. Much of what goes on there only functions as diversion. Toxic Landscapes, however, uses art to give us bite-sized chunks of the real world to sink our teeth into. Within the arena of art, Jean Marie Martin gives us the opportunity to isolate some otherwise overwhelming issues. And because the conceptual aspects of these paintings are well grounded in their physical medium, it is a particularly satisfying experience. His use of anti-fouling paint is so much healthier than that for which it was intended. There are no ailing fish in this gallery. Instead, there are flourishing ideas.

– Sally McKay