Q & A with Jet Martinez
In a time where the world does not give space to grieve for a crisis before another one strikes, Jet Martinez’s works, in their evident beauty, effortlessly hold space for audiences to process those complex reactions to global distress. Drawing from his own personally cultivated cultures and mindful observations of greater concerns while isolated in his studio, Martinez’s ever-evolving works project a seamlessly alluring natural world, devoid of conflict. Of course, nothing is ever perfect and without flaws, and as Martinez prepares to exhibit his latest body of work, “Des Colores,” First Amendment took a moment to speak with the Mexican-born creative about developing an aesthetic that continues to stay true to its creator’s narrative, even after years of self rediscovery.
Interview by L. Herrada-Rios
Q & A has been edited for clarity.
At first glance, your floral works are romantic and delicate, often reminiscent of Mexican/Latin American folk motifs. Upon deeper observation, however, you contrast these aesthetically pleasing images with thought-provoking titles that are often reflective of greater societal or environmental issues. Do you always aspire your works to be a call-to-action for global concerns such as climate change and class warfare or is this something that naturally get stimulated in creating work?
No, I never really do that. I have always struggled with titles for paintings, so I end up giving most paintings (those not already born with a name), obscure references or free association of words. But no, I don't usually give such disassociated titles to my pieces.
An artist’s life can be a hermit life so when I'm working, I try to listen to the news and keep up with current events. Shit is fucked up right now and, honestly, it sometimes feels like decorating the pillars in the last days of the Roman Empire.
[The] pieces [for “Des-Colores”] have titles that reference some of the things I've been listening about while working on this show; these titles suck and I hate them but I think they reflect the discordance I feel trying to make pretty things about how wonderful Nature is when real Nature has been (and is being) destroyed irreversibly for greed.
I don't aspire for my works to be calls to action... on purpose. I think that it's important for everyone to keep up the noise how they can. I will generally address the things I'm passionate about but I will be honest [and say] that I could do better in every way.
What captivates me about your work is how strikingly immaculate your botanical compositions are. From your murals to your canvas works, they all exude soul, tenderness, and your artistic diligence. How did you develop your style and in what ways do you challenge yourself to continue creatively grow?
Thank you for your very kind characterization of my work. I think one thing that I really have working for me, especially now, is time. Specifically, the time I have put into my art since I was a kid. I have been drawing, and later, painting, since I can remember. In that time, I have developed many styles and worked on those styles until they became something else. A "style" is something many artists work towards, unwittingly trying to freeze their work in time to say, "This! This is what I do and who I am!" While I do try to work on developing [my] styles, I also really try to work against myself and not get stuck on one thing. I allow myself to be influenced and inspired because now I trust my hands to still produce something original. Even when I start working on entirely new styles of work, I want it to feel like part of my larger body of work. While I think it's incredibly important to create a context by working out a series of paintings and developing styles, I also think it's crucial to experiment and not pigeon-hole oneself.
Over the years, I have painted in many different styles and followed through with them until they lead me to something else. I used to paint figures; I used to paint realism; I used to paint historical themes; I used to paint buildings and landscapes. While not all these styles were "successful," they've all taught me something and have gone a long way towards training my hands and understanding the materials I work with.
While my styles have changed quite a bit over time, my themes have stayed relatively true. Nature has always been a major influence in my work. Not just cute birds and flowers, but the powerful life force that drives everything everyday, even if we don't see it or can't connect to it. A reverence for Nature has always been present, even in the drawings I did as a kid.
Seeing art as real work has also been a huge driving factor for me. I think that artists have great responsibility to pay attention to their craft. It's important for an artist to strive to get better at their craft, and that really only comes out of hours and hours of work when no one is watching. I personally feel a great responsibility to put out the best [work] I can make at that time. It's a privilege to make a living as an artist and I want my work to reflect my gratefulness through the attention I put into my work. If people see "soul" in my work, it's because my soul is in the game.
How do you think that heritage relates to the art world at-large (traditional/indigenous aesthetics in a modern mural/fine art context)?
Over the last decade or so, I have made a conscious choice to focus on my Mexican heritage and have tried to incorporate traditional folk art motifs into my work. One aspect of why I made this choice, was because I feel like people in the US only discuss problems when discussing Mexico: violence, immigration, drugs, immigration, and perpetual strife. While all of these things are true and part of Mexican [society] (and most modern [societies], to be fair), they by no means define it. When I think of Mexico, I think of the sun, fruit, music, food, family, colors, smells, conversation, laughter, passion, love for Nature, spirits, and magic. These things are reflected in the many varieties of regional folk arts found in Mexico. Some of these folk arts come in the form of small trinkets like little painted plates or paper maché skeleton figurines. What is overlooked, however, is that most of these small folk art treasures represent, in many cases, the economic driver of small families and communities throughout Mexico that dedicate themselves to making them. In other words, art making can be the principal industrial activity of many small communities in Mexico. I find this deeply inspirational, something I want to celebrate and emulate here in the Bay Area.
After several years working on Mexican folk art-inspired work, I've started to see that there are more similarities than differences in folk arts from all around the world. In my work, these similarities manifest when a viewer not of Mexican descent comments that my work really reminds them of something from their own culture. [For instance], I may have started a piece inspired by lacquered plates from Michoacan in central Mexico, but the viewer is instead reminded of embroidered silks from Japan; I celebrate these commonalities. In fact, I think this is incredibly fertile artistic ground that I look forward to exploring for years to come. It hints at what we already know: people are essentially the same, even if our cultures and stories might differ. As an artist, it also opens up a new way of looking at art making; rather than obsessing over making something that is "my style," it allows me to explore work that feels like "our style.” In other words, it allows me to plug into larger traditions of art making that didn't feel so accessible when I was just focusing on creating something that could only be read as being my work.
Obviously, I am not a traditional folk artist from a small village in Mexico. I live in this urban landscape. That however, does not isolate me from traditions of folk art making. In my opinion, street murals and graffiti are one of the few "traditional" and multi-generational art forms that we have in the Bay Area. I would even call it a [type of] Bay Area folk art: our street murals and graff communities are multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and multicultural. They have accepted forms while leaving room for individual interpretation. They represent the people and, like folk art, our street murals and graff are under appreciated by those who mind the gates of the so-called "art world". Even if this comparison does not fully apply, I think that folk artists and muralists and graffiti writers draw from the same well of inspiration and operate with a similar intent to represent their lives, communities and their culture.
To your question, "how do you think heritage relates to the art world at large?"- This is a broad question for me. I think because when I look at myself, I could be several different things. I am a dual citizen. I am multiracial. I speak a few languages. We moved a lot when I was a kid [so] I've been a minority and a majority [in those places]. I've been in the Bay Area longer than anywhere, but I'm not "from" here. I'm kind of all over the place on the typical heritage markers. I think because I've always moved and had to reinvent myself, I learned to create a feeling of heritage from things like friends, art, and spending time in the local Nature. I think I have found a sense of heritage and belonging in the peripheries of a really vibrant Bay Area art scene... specifically, the mural and graff scene. There's been several times I felt like "we" were doing something really important, even if we were just painting the liquor store. We create the vibrant public art renaissance the Bay Area is currently enjoying every time a kid starts throwing up first lines, or an old dog like me scrambles to get up a ladder to work on a wall. When I am doing my best work, I feel like I am part of a larger heritage of humanity that transcends language, color, age, gender, or whatever. I'm wide open.
In your new exhibition at First Amendment, “Des-Colores,” you use a monochromatic palette across the series. “Des- Colores” - a counter play on the Spanish song “De Colores,” which translates to “of colors”- challenges your signature usage of wide color gamut by metaphorically confronting the imminent loss of nature through the absence of color in your otherwise highly chromatic creations. In a way, you have politicized the use of color to urge people to look beyond alluring images and face pending darkness. How did you develop this theme and is it something that you are hoping to explore more in the future?
The concept came from this messed up reality of coral system bleaching. These paintings are mostly reinterpretations of other, much more colorful paintings of mine. I wanted to pull the joy out of them. I thought about going around town and "touching up" all my murals in grey tones. Removing the color feels like removing something essential to my work. Things are not as they should be in the world and I want to reflect that in these paintings. I started working on this series pretty organically; I just haven't really been feeling all ebullient and bubbly and naturally started making work that felt more dark and simple.
I've been struggling to find ways to use my visual language to talk about a feeling of loss that I think many people are experiencing in relation to global warming and environmental collapse. It's hard to really feel the loss when you are in the state of losing. The tragic bleaching and destruction of coral reef systems around the world really came to life for me on a project I did with PangeaSeed earlier this year in Mexico. It really shook me to hear how what used to be rich coral ecosystems now looked like vast, sandy areas with individual, bleached coral here and there. Absolute destruction... and yet, the more reason to protect what's left.
The idea is not necessarily to be sad, but rather to dwell on the idea of loss to actually face that loss. Like most artists, my art is my medicine and it's easier to heal the hurt when you actually look at the wound.
I'm pretty sure I will explore this concept in the near future but I also expect to need to do some happy ass work after a while... for balance.
Thanks to Jet for providing a personal insight into his process for his upcoming solo show. “Des-Colores” opens this Saturday, October 5th from 7pm–10pm at First Amendment Gallery, 1000 Howard St. in San Francisco’s SoMA district. For more information on this show, available works, or commissions, please contact us at email@example.com