THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS
Transitivity in Frank Martínez Work
The work by Frank Martínez (Havana, 1972) builds an alternative reality where what is referential occupies a privileged place. His art focuses cultural traditions, acknowledged or controversial characters and relevant events in Cuban and universal history: hence the fantasizing of the artist is based on a research of fundamental historical periods the human being has gone through. But diverse existential circumstances also define his creation; his training as an engraver, together with the study of printing techniques as a concept, generated visual architectures where a refinement of the forms that would finally take him to the seduction and cleanliness of the drawing was perceived.
In a first moment, his academic stay in the High Institute of Arts (ISA in its Spanish acronym) during the nineties had a bearing on several keys of his later work. Frank Martinez's passing through that school was marked by the confluence with strong creative personalities in its engraving workshop, which made a dialogue transcending the workshop's space possible and was also defined by the influence of professor Lupe Álvarez who, with the awareness of a new generation, shaped the creative spirit of a huge part of the today known visual producers who received her classes on Aesthetics. On this stage, the artist conceived his pieces as a reaction to his own mean of execution, trying to approach the technique and the topics as if they were a single referent, a way in which many works created a metalanguage where the engraving questioned and looked for answers in itself.
The works from this period were mostly made in silk-screen, drypoint or xylography, and inquired into Cuban cultural traditions, linked to anthropological concepts by authors like Fernando Ortiz and Manuel Moreno Fraginals. Music, as original liturgy and expression, was also a recurring theme during this stage, highlighting the structural complexity of the instruments and the interpretative lack of moderation in genres like jazz. These topics draw attention to a taste by the artist to approach “the other”, which has usually been omitted or satirized, although his interests go beyond an approach to culture as a space of liberation, while also exploring the cynicism or humor of daily situations explicitly stated from the titles themselves, as eclectic as the work they label; pieces as Para que veas como queda grabado and A taco perdido, ganancia de observadores express that sarcasm in the body-language of the characters and its staging.
Frank Martínez's graphic work, although mostly encompassing conventional formats, also interacts with objects and installations, so his engraving materializes reaching new meanings. The piece Hielo (Ice) is one of the best achieved examples of his “graphic installations”, for which the creator printed the image of the Egyptian pyramids on more than a hundred disposable diapers, thus activating a contrast progressively appearing in his work: the struggle between what is ephemeral and what is permanent, what is underused and banal before the fossilization of History.
Of the pieces flirting with objects, 1/10 stands out because of its multiple readings, where the artist reiterates ten times on the glass the versicle No lo pienso repetir (I don't think I will repeat it), thus activating forces in opposition and contradicting this postulate in its form; and Lo inherente a nuestra cultura, Diferentes Impresiones, also stands out functioning as a study of the cultural status of common men who, from their perception, intend to explain what they understand as culture, but their voices dilute in multiplicity, in the murmur of insignificance. The work, made from five portraits that in their circular form reminds the emission structure of a parabolic antenna, shows in a suggestive way the various social strata which make up the nation. Installation works settle on the search of conflictive means, which even contradict, only in appearance, the works themselves. Frank Martínez intends his pieces to interact with the receiver and to be the starting point of debate and polemics.
Although the graphic work of the artist operates as a transmitter of meanings in its multiplicity, it is necessary to highlight an exhibition that, because of its connotation, summarizes an entire creative cycle: La técnica es la técnica (The Technique Is the Technique), exhibited in Casa de las Américas during 2002, as La Joven Estampa award he had received the year before. The exhibition, as foreboded in the title, stands out because of a presentation of diverse formulations in engraving, from which a self-referential speech on the technique and the “interest of manipulating certain media to talk on that eternal dubitation of the union”1 derive. Here the artist offers the creative struggles of the graph, showing the autotrophic distinction of the engraving, paradoxically conditioned by its limitations but also by its infinite possibilities. One of the outstanding pieces in that group was Diferentes impresiones individuales generan una gran impresión colectiva (Different Individual Impressions Create a Great Collective Impression), where the image of the disjointed man becomes a sort of mechanism to assemble, as an unfinished self-portrait, thus showing that the artist is not only restless to overcome the technique, but also to accentuate a suggestion on the viewer, an intimacy in its topics.
A somewhat special variation took place in Frank Martínez's artistic journey, who moved away from his praxis as an engraver gradually approaching drawing and using referents in which he explicitly states a particular interest on North American culture and history. It is well known that engraving has been seen as a minor, and even sectarian, genre within visual arts, and the market has neither been kind with the concept of edition or of multipleoriginal, actions that have made more than an artist search for other creative paths. But in the case of Frank Martínez, the change is especially due to his interest in making the process of telling stories viable without the mediation of production time in the workshop and his intention of making the relationship between the author and his work much more dynamic. In this sense, the series Cotton (2008) acts as a hinge when passing to drawing with a clearly neo-historicist trend. The collection formally achieves an interaction between drawing and engraving as a duality unifying the works. The artist tackles the cause of the trip, but particularizes in two different trips, one of them framed in the comfort and the conservative North American culture of the fifties in the past century, when the so-called “American dream” was built; and the other path centered on the readiness of black slaves in trains and ships heading for derision and submissiveness, which ironically becomes the support of the first. The images—with a clear pop influence—of the comfort and luxury in planes and trains are surpassed by the succinct presence of blacks in their precariousness. In that series, drawing is conceived as the main scenography, but serigraphic printing is kept as a complement, thus achieving a superposition of concepts in the work and provoking the contrasts that so much interest the artist.
Some keys of his former work survive in this stage and new interests which will later reappear with greater strength are discerned, shaping the peculiar style of the artist. First of all, the absence of color in his visualization stands out; the entire work opts for the use of white and black, trying to endow the images with a little colder and alien historicity—since the events are almost always manipulated—, and to remove any banal attraction. The approach to relevant events in universal history, but especially in the North American one, starts from the principle of a photographic appropriation the artist personalizes through drawing, making in closer to the person receiving it.
Literal (2012-2014) is the series which will define Frank Martínez's recent attention centers, exclusively characterized by a drawing with some reminiscences of pictorial hyperrealism. In this group, the pleasure to portray scenes of the United States life and history is still kept, since the artist understands that geographic and cultural proximity is something unavoidably linking us. The pieces highlight crucial moments, frozen in suggestive scenes, which have been slightly contextualized anew and cloaked by a new connotation. Thus, the arrival of American troops to the Philippines in the case of Accidental; the greeting, supposedly cordial, between Gerald and Betty
Ford and Richard and Pat Nixon during the farewell of this last president in the White House, in Movimiento de cuadros; the staging of Martin Luther King murder, in Untitled; or, simply, Elvis Presley swimming in tropical waters watched by two expectant subjects on the breakwater in American Dreams, are brought up to date.
The abovementioned works show the eagerness, present in Frank Martínez's complete oeuvre, of endowing his characters with an individual psychology, whether being common subjects or characters with a very worldwide well-known public nature. The referents are found in various photographic works by
Robert Frank and Walker Evans, as well as in photo-reports in Life magazine, which marked milestones because of being controversial or hitting the headlines with topics like racism and violence. The appropriation of these images is not fortuitous. To select them, the artist makes a meticulous research on the origin and original context of each one and these are the distinctions justifying their placement on a new stage.
For its part, the series Reality (2015- ) maintains points of contact with the former project. The title itself plays with the ironies of the representations that like to change reality when inventing stories with historical facts. Exhibited in the mega exhibition Zona Franca, collateral to the Twelfth Havana Biennial, this series maintains the taste for photographic appropriation, but this selection implies a step forward in the artist's searches, since this time the breakdowns in historical chronology are found in more specific aspects. On them, the artist comments in his statement:
Their selection is justified by the fact that these works, in their representation, intend to suggest alternatives to the reality shown by the media and what is imposed as the “truth”. Therefore, they talk about the un-knowledge by the viewer of his reality. This semantic ambiguity intends to dismantle the logic of the original event, offering other readings from art.2
It could be said that Frank Martínez has revisited the anthropological aspect of his work, rather moving away from mass culture to give space to native populations and the behavior of specific ethnic groups. In this case, the work Reserva (Reservation) illustrates the peculiar transit of African Masais through a western environment, where a poster reading Danger, Beware of the Natives can be read as an anachronism. Land Art also shows that interest in ethnological components: in it, the Nazca lines, with their symbolic figures, turn into a sort of war map showing the location of missiles and armaments.
But none of these movements is uncalled-for in the works of Frank Martínez, an artist who likes to “translate” stories on the canvases and, when doing so, ends up updating or reinventing them. The first logical transit in his work results in a conflictive process of finding a referent, consciously manipulate it and then transfering it to the canvas. The second consists in varying or changing iconic photographs and, consequently, manipulating the order of the events placing them in a contemporary environment. Other of the reshuffles his work experiences is to be found on the path chosen by the artist to make the coexistence of a hegemonic culture feasible, as the North American is with the otherness of Cuban culture and history. There are other mobilities, latent in turning what is cult with what is popular, what is serious with that is jocular, what is old with what is new, and what is sacred with what is profane, but “transitivity” not only implies an effective process on the referential or conceptual level, but also a functionality of these efforts in the visual field. It is precisely in this field where mutations are valid for the artist, where the end justifies the means.
Frank Martínez's work conciliates, in a peculiar way, the engraver with the draftsman, the eclectic graphic with photographic reformulation. The nexus connecting his entire creation starts from the stroke as architecture of the work, as a precedent for any pictorial reflection. That is how the frames between one and the other become blurred. The artist does not consider himself fragmented, but the reality he is so interested in apprehending is. At least for the moment it cannot be any other way.
Frank Martínez opts for the use of white and black, trying to endow the images with a little colder and alien historicity, and to remove any banal attraction…