Shantell Martin at the Albright-Knox

[ARTIST TALK] It all starts with the simplest of things: a line. A line in thick black marker on white that bends and twists and opens new fields. Shantell Martin’s bedrock method starts with a black line on everything without planning what she is going to draw or how the bigger picture will develop. “The pen knows where it is going and I just follow,” Martin has said. 

The large mural piece covers the face of a wall in the big sculpture court room in the Albright-Knox and was created on site at the opening of her exhibit, Someday We Can on March 11, allowing viewers to be part of the process. The exhibit will conclude with the installation of a Martin mural at an as yet undisclosed location on the East Side.

Her natural drawing style is striking and deliberate. The absence of a true focal point allows multiple starting points within the work depending on the viewer. There is no mystery in her process, as if she’s telling the viewer that someday we can, too.  

The exhibition includes one large mural and a large two-tiered boomerang-shaped table filled with objects including, toys, bottles, and TVs painted white and covered in her signature line drawings. Upon examination, you will find cascading text, stick figures, staircases, animals, boats, quick dashes, line and shape patterns, mountains, and most notably faces that betray a comic touch. Martin’s lines and shapes carry us through the story her marker ldraws.  

I visited the exhibition with my children. Upon inspecting the table, they found many objects that activated memories for them. For example hidden, painted white and undrawn on, there is a figurine from the book, Where the Wild Things Are, a toy car, one of those little plastic lawn mowers that pop little plastic balls around when you push it, bath toys, animal figurines, and my personal favorite airplanes. All things they of course recognize in their original form. Martin has painted them white and drawn on them, but the memory remains. 

The collection of objects gives us little information as to why they are all together other than her process—she draws on everything. While my children were swirling around the table I was drawn to the faces—all the faces on the mural and on the sculpture portion of the exhibition. Their eyes seem to be looking at each other and the viewer. No matter where you are in the gallery, all eyes are on you. The faces are symbolic, quick shape of an eye, a blunt L-shaped nose and a quick line for a mouth.

There is an accessibility, amusing quality to the work. It is instantly relatable. She reminds us that we too are artists. We all possess the ability to do what we were born to do, but many of us never take the time to realize what we are best at. As an art educator, I am convinced that at least in the classroom this approach can be relayed and made relevant to students. Martin’s art immediately strikes a viewer as belonging in and to the world, and not just in a gallery. There is no patina of pretension in this work, but still it accomplishes a register of transcendence. Martin’s work allowed me to forget I was in a gallery being watched the lurky security guard and that I should act a certain way – you know the way you are supposed to act around’ precious things.  

Martin will be artist-in-residence at the University of Buffalo through June 25. Her residency is the result of collaboration with the Albright Knox Art Gallery’s Public Art Initiative.  She will be giving a series of talks and will create an outdoor, permanent mural on Buffalo’s East Side.  Martin will work with UB students and community representatives to decide the final location of the mural. This is the first time an exhibiting artist will also, at the same time, install artwork within the community. The Someday We Can line extends through June 25 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. 

As part of M&T FIRST FRIDAYS @ THE GALLERY, Shantell Martin will have a discussion with Albright-Knox public art curator Aaron Ott on Friday, April 7, 2017, 7:30-8:30 pm. It is free and will talk place in the auditorium. 




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