Executed entirely in shades of translucent white inks, these three veiled yet oddly blinding images are only legible as landscapes through subtle changes of tonality. Placed at an unidentifiable viewpoint facing an anonymous birch forest, riverscape and snow-capped mountain range, we are unable to determine either the scale or specific contours of what we are seeing. In fact, they are not real places, but the inventions of an artist whose concern is a nature so mediated by prior representations that it can no longer be comprehended in a “natural” way. Even his titles—Balentane, Albenast and Partinem—are “fictions, like the images,” he wrote me in a recent email; the names carry the whiff of distant planets in a sci-fi novel.
Among the paintings Martin showed in a 2011 exhibition at Greenberg Van Doren in New York, he included a version of the birch forest; as in the other paintings there, drained of pigment and executed in sprayed acrylic with no trace of the hand, it was almost impossible to identify even the medium—it could have easily been a photographic screenprint. Here, the birch forest assembles itself via lightly dappled shadows, and appears as if seen through mist or snow. When you get close to each of the prints you are able to see the over-lapping ink in tiny patches, making the entirely indirect execution (he printed with Joe Freye at Tandem Press) feel oddly handmade by comparison with the earlier seamless paintings. The longer we look at all three prints, the more paradoxically coloristic they grow as well, with the white inks shading to silver and yellow. Indeed, their extreme opticality trumps the kind of subjective inner journey that one associates with the experience of the sublime, particularly in the American 19th-century painting Cameron’s prints so effectively adumbrate.
At the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, which he attended in 1996, Martin began his critique of the landscape tradition by appropriating and copying advertisements with unlocatable “magnificent” views; as time passed he began inventing his own generalized images, the essence of grand, unpopulated wildernesses. (Born in Seattle in 1970, he grew up in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain Range; the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 was a formative experience.) His is the zero sum total of the tradition begun by Albert Bierstaedt and Thomas Moran, who invented “the West” through paintings that incorporated idealized views realized in the studio.
Martin’s imaginary views take into account the subsequent history of photography and media tropes, which he references in his paintings through bracketing and framing devices. Yet there is another aspect to his work, one that conditions their melancholy cast. Cool as they are, his mediated landscapes, with their distanciating effects, cannot but remind us that we are no longer able to look at nature without experiencing a sense of loss, as environmental catastrophe looms. Gone is the nature that ultimately informed, generations of lives and images ago, these beautiful and chilling prints.