Review: Greg Martens’s Out From the Darkness at Grove Gallery

Greg Martens holds a very special place in my heart.

He was a traveling salesman who dropped out of college and married the love of his life with whom he raised three children, eventually becoming a cobbler out in Wauwatosa, WI – where his whole family helped fix shoes in their busy little shop. At the age of 46, Martens was diagnosed with very aggressive bone marrow cancer, and given two years to live. He shut down his store, proclaimed the love his family certainly already felt, said his goodbyes, and prepared for what he was told would surely come. At the 11th hour, he was offered an extremely experimental surgery that “may or may not work,” and figured, “It can’t get any worse.” After several surgeries, transplants, being in and out of the hospital all the time, financial ruin to the point of bankruptcy, and foreclosure… Greg went into remission. He was given, he has told me many times, a new lease on life. Literally.

And then? He went back to school to study visual art.

ink on paper self-portrait by Greg Martens

This is when I met Gregory Martens: as a non-traditional, working class, undergraduate printmaker in his fifties, happy, and making, and chatting almost all the time – dedicated to telling the stories of machinists, cobblers, and his blue collar peers, all performing their livelihood, and finding their place in the New American System. I watched and participated as he finished that degree, and then a Masters, exploring everything from celebratory woodcut portraits of his fellow Milwaukutians (I am told that this is not a word, but I am going to use it because I like it better than Milwaukeean) to photography and storytelling around his own journey with illness. He now teaches printmaking part-time in the Peck School of Arts at UW-Milwaukee, and works in his own Hip Joint Press studio.

“Out From the Darkness,” Greg’s solo exhibition, recently premiered at Grove Gallery – run by current UWM grad student and entrepreneur, Adam Beadel of Team Nerd Press. According to the artist, the “darkness” he is coming out of (and I’ll admit I have some mixed feelings about this) “refers to letting go of the influences and pressures of academic training” (ha!), as he is “just trying to channel the teenaged kid back in the 1970’s who loved drawing for endless hours while listening to rock and roll on the 8-track.”

update! The artist emailed me, re:above

Regarding the theme of my show, “Out from the darkness” using “darkness” to describe academic training and influence does seem a bit counter-intuitive, but ever since I entered the art world as a maker, the brass ring has been the New York market, Art Basel, and Documenta. Global, intellectual, heady ideas shaped into visual brilliance. Work worthy of the attention of Artforum, Art in America, and Hal Foster. Work that demonstrates a fully realized appreciation, mastery, and relevant commentary of art history, art theory, and art criticism. But aspiring (and failing) to reach these heights left me in a dark place. The heart of it all for me is drawing, and upon reflection, my purest experience drawing was as a long-haired “freak” in high school in the mid 1970’s. So, I have tried to recreate that experience in my studio and the results are the work in this exhibition. No strategy, no expectations, no pressure.

In Distractions, above, we see the artist on an accordion, behind a drum set and guitar, a baby (his grandkid?), monsters, and skeletons, and more. He is in front of a library, and beside a poster for a production (his studio, maybe?)… but that studio is on the move, transporting good(s) via truck. Honestly, his distractions and work both sound a lot more fun than my own bureaucratic, academic emailing and paperwork; heck, I’m having more fun writing about his distractions, and I suppose blogging is one of mine.

As is his usual, odd and graphic style, there is a combination of homage and darkness in all the drawings, paintings, prints, and sketchbooks-as-anthologies on show, which depict, he says, “demons, comics, snakes, skeletons, monsters, crying babies, bad boys, and cool cars,” with a sense of often political humor.

Sadly, I only made it out to Martens’ exhibition today, the last day – and there was some confusion about gallery hours… so the above shot is the utterly glorious window, and I was able to view only this and what I could see beyond, as well as what is on the two sites linked to above. But it, along with what I already know, is enough to recommend curators and galleries consider his work, and artists and art appreciators visit his site, or any other upcoming exhibitions (he’s also got a few pieces on permanent view on the ground floor of the Engineering building at UWM – where I helped to arrange some purchases!). And… definitely speak with him (or Adam about his gallery and print shop!) if you get the chance. Greg is an inspirational person and artist!

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