Posted January 3, 2023 by Blaine Garrett
We sit down for a conversation with the figurative artist to talk about her relationship with color, muses, and power.
I have admired the work of CL Martin for some time, but I only finally met her through her participation in the 2021 MPLSART Sketchbook Project. With her work being featured in the Otherworldly Art Collective's 2023 Safe Word Erotic Art Show February 3rd and 4th at Squirrel Haus, I thought it would be a great time to get to know the artist a bit more. Enjoy.
CL Martin is a queer female figurative artist working primarily in Minneapolis. She uses traditional media to experiment with visual situations involving enigmatic characters with their own unique identity and presence. Martin uses numerous references ranging from pop culture to historical events to invite viewers into examining their own preconceived, psychological projections of identity performance, cultural history, and gender roles. Martin has a BFA in Painting from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and in 2007 received an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the National Endowment for The Arts. She has exhibited internationally from London to Italy and her work resides in private collections in London, Ireland, Russia, Paris, Romania, Los Angeles, and New York.
Her as a Young Man, Charcoal, ink, white chalk, acrylic paint on paper, 22" x 30"
Blaine Garrett: How did you get your start in the visual arts?
CL Martin: I have just always been drawing. I've been drawing for as long as I can remember. It was my coping mechanism when I was really young. I often felt drawing was the only thing that made me real; I could just disappear but my drawings would get noticed. So the art-making and art showing became incorporated into my identity. Then I went to art school and fell into the local art world. I went to shows. I met people. I started selling some stuff. People liked my art. It is one of the few areas where I feel I have skill and value if art and artistic skill have value.
Venus, Pencil, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 22" x 30"
BG: I find your use of limited palettes fascinating. Could you describe your approach to color in your work?
CL: For decades, I would only draw in pencil. Then I tried oil painting in high school. In art school, you get color theory and design basics. I became an oil painting major, but I felt overwhelmed by color. I became very aware of it 24/7 and its intensity. I was seeing more and more color everywhere I looked and sometimes it felt like a visual overload. Before I started painting, I found setting up a color palette to be intimidating and daunting. My junior thesis was a series of paintings of nuclear reactor cores using only phthalo blue, alizarin crimson, and white. The main criticism I received was my restricted palette! My understanding of form felt like it had to be separate from color. Color had to be additive for me.
After art school, I went back to black and white pencil and charcoal drawing because it was what I’m most comfortable with. I could study and experiment with the human face without being overwhelmed by color. I went back to school to study graphic/web design and got into the gestalt psychology behind color and the power it has over peoples' thoughts, emotions, and decision-making. Studying how color was used in political propaganda was eye-opening, so to speak. That’s when I started using restricted color in my drawings of figures. I experimented in Photoshop with colors and how they interacted. I could control more where the viewers’ eyes would look first and what emotion they might be feeling just by the color I chose and where I chose to put it. I could establish a visual hierarchy that leads the viewer to feel close to what I want them to feel.
Notre Dame de Mars (Our Lady of Mars), Pencil, pen, markers, acrylic paint on paper, 22 x 30"
BG: Your work often depicts strong female characters staring directly back into the heart of the viewer. It feels like you are taking back the typical male gaze from throughout art history. Is this an accurate observation?
CL: I honestly try not to think about the male gaze because it’s oppressive but its impact is unavoidable. I don’t like to think of myself as a “woman” and I reject “femininity” because these words/concepts were invented and defined by men and have very little to do with actually being female. Art history and the history of aesthetics are huge influences on my work. I like to create my subjects using the cultural aesthetics of strength and power (men would call it “masculine” but only because they are in power) because I personally feel so powerless. I grew up in fear of my father, so I was always anxious and hyper aware for when the time came to run and hide. Avoid people and avoid injury. This is my normal, fear is a familiar state. Experiences in life – from trauma to the existential dread of climate change, political extremism, war, mass extinction, etc. – have all but served to reinforce it. It makes me feel powerless which makes me angry which makes me feel even more powerless. The figures can be powerful and confrontational whereas I cannot be. They can be strong and expressive whereas I cannot be. I think of them as my protectors, as deities, as allegorical figures, as the shadows cast on the cave wall. I know that strength and power are illusions but an illusion can have just as much impact as anything real. Art is an illusion.
BG: Could you elaborate a bit on the subjects of your work? Do you work from models?
CL: Yes, I usually have a muse or two who I find and follow online. I use multiple photos of them to make one drawing or several sketches. It helps me get used to how their face and body would look and feel in three dimensions. I make a study of them. Using my body, I feel the imagined physicality of them.
All the models I draw from are performers so there is always that element of psychological projection. The models I use in multiple pieces I call muses. They are people who I find endlessly interesting, and I try to capture that in a drawing as if to bring them to life in front of me. They have what I perceive to be a special kind of power only a performer has: magnetism, perceived fearlessness, the ability to shape-shift. Again, it’s an illusion because there is no power without an audience to observe it.
Mania, Graphite, charcoal, acrylic paint on paper, 18 x 20"
BG: Who is an artist that has inspired your process along the way?
CL: My favorite artist, or at least one who has inspired me a lot, is the Baroque Italian painter Caravaggio. Fascinating art, fascinating person. He grew up as an assembly line painter in what could be described as a fine art factory/workshop specializing in still life paintings. Although he worked hard and rose to the top within the regimented fine art system run by the aristocracy, he still managed to “stick it to the man.” For example, he would paint Christian saints with dirty feet and hands, which was accurate to how his models looked. He incorporated the reality of the models he used with the religious character, but it went deeper than that. During the Renaissance, it was unheard of (and sacrilegious even) to depict Christian figures as dirty and poor. Part of the visual illusion of wealth and power back then was being seen as clean. After the chaos of the medieval period, the families who took power in Europe altered Christian theology to explain why they had power in the first place (i.e. "chosen by God") and used it as a weapon to enforce their laws and rules. Divine justice was invented. Being dirty became likened to being a sinner. Access to clean water and having the time to clean oneself was a privilege only the wealthy and the powerful (aka "the righteous") had.
He would also use the same models over and over again and paint them as they were rather than idealizing them. Painting a notorious prostitute as the Virgin Mary was like…whoa. He had a complex about the wealthy and powerful. He would work to actively undermine them and piss them off regularly, destroy their property and harass them. They tolerated it because of his art but only to a point. He got into a drunken sword fight and accidentally killed the son of a powerful family after accusing him of cheating on a bet over a tennis match. He died in exile and on the run.
Resenting his powerlessness, the feeling of futility and meaninglessness that your life doesn’t matter are things I relate to. The only “power” he had was to say “f— you” with a painting. That’s punk rock.
La Fille de Mars (Girl From Mars), Graphite, charcoal, ink, acrylic on paper. 22 x 30"
BG: How has your work evolved over time?
CL: My work has stayed the same in a way: it is people’s portraits, faces, and emotions. It has also evolved and changed. My technique has improved simply through practice. It has also changed due to getting older and having more experience making. I’ve become more experimental and less emotionally attached to the finished piece. I understand more the concept that there are actually no mistakes, so the fear of making one disappears. Some of the most interesting visual breakthroughs have happened because of what I once would have deemed a mistake but now I call a “happy accident.” During the pandemic, I had more time to make work and I made a lot. I discovered my current muse Agathe, a French performer, and exploded making all this work brimming with inspiration because of her. Otherwise, the isolation and fear caused by the pandemic was pretty close to the normal way of existing for me so it wasn’t that big of a change.
BG: I first saw your work in an exhibition curated by the Otherworldly Arts Collective. How did you first get involved and what shows do you have coming up?
CL: I fell into showing at OAC. It’s an accessible group, not pretentious, which is what I wanted. They put on shows for the people rather than the "art world". It’s less about profit than it is about having a good time looking at, thinking about, and talking about art. Nothing is intensely serious but the work can be if that’s what an artist needs and wants. Danielle Marie Pebbles and folks at Otherworldly Arts Collective are very generous, supportive, consistent, and tolerant. They really let artists do their own thing. I trust them. I could show consistently and find myself as an artist over years without feeling the pressure to do just that. They are also artists so they get it. I would not be the artist I am today without them.
For shows I have coming up, I have a new nude in Safeword, the erotic art show put on by OAC. I’m in a show at the AZ gallery in Lowertown St. Paul. At the end of May, I have a co-exhibition at the University of Minnesota. More details on that later.
Carabosse, Charcoal, pencil, pastel & acrylic on paper, 21 x 30"
BG: How can folks best support you and your practice right now?
CL: I think the easiest way to be supportive is to follow my work on social media and “like” and/or comment. These acts inform the algorithm to show it to more people. The more people look, the more the art lives. And also, feel free to reach out and talk about art. Come to shows.
BG: Thanks for taking the time to talk more about your practice with MPLSART, and I'm looking forward to seeing your work in Safeword.
CL: Of course! Thank you. ◼︎
You can see more of CL Martin's work on Instagram, Facebook, and on her website. The Safe Word Erotic Art Show, organized by The Otherworldly Art Collective. takes place February 3rd and 4th at Squirrel Haus Arts in Minneapolis. This is a ticketed 21+ event. You can purchase tickets in advance.
CL Martin. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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