Shantell Martin: NEW/NOW
by Madeline DeFilippis | 27 February 2021
The New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut, seems like a strange place to find Shantell Martin’s first major retrospective. However, Martin, who is now based in New York, is truly an international artist. Despite it being delayed as a result of the pandemic, the NBMAA dedicated its 2020 exhibition schedule to women artists, both inside and outside of its collection. 2020/20+ Women highlights a variety of artists, from Kara Walker to Helen Frankenthaler through solo exhibitions. Martin’s survey is the third major solo show in the programme.
At home in Connecticut, I have been lucky enough to explore most of the exhibitions from 2020/20+ Women. The NBMAA is unique in that it is a purpose-built, contemporary space which prides itself on subtly changing its inner environment to match the pieces shown. In the summer of 2019, I worked in the Collections department of the museum, managing the works which passed through the exhibition halls. The museum is led by Min Jung Kim, a graduate of the Courtauld MA Art History who is international and intersectional in her outlook. The museum is therefore both a source of local cultural interest and an international locus of aesthetic innovation and crucial visibility.
Martin fits into the vision of the museum because of her interest in the new and the now. Born in 1980, Martin is a millennial in the sense that she has always dreamed bigger; although she is known for a specific style which has transformed from thin-lined drawings, reminiscent of the poet Shel Silverstein’s illustrations, to the visual language Keith Haring developed on the streets and the subways of NYC, Martin is an innovator. After attending Central St Martin’s University, Martin explored Tokyo, Japan, and eventually travelled to the United States. In Boston, she was an artist in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, and in New York City she has been an artist in residence and Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Martin pursues an interdisciplinary practice which is reflected in her success in technology, art, fashion, and educational environments.
The NBMAA describes Martin as ‘one of the most versatile young artists working today’, both in her personal dedication to ‘draw on everything’ and in her commitment to issues of ‘intersectionality, play society, and culture’. As soon as I walked into the first room of the exhibition, I could understand why. Martin was chosen specifically because she has emerged over the last twenty years that on the international art scene as a commanding contemporary artist. The first exhibition room traces Martin’s career, starting with her personal journals which she filled during her trip to Tokyo. Three framed drawings track stylistic changes to Martin’s work, from a thin illustrative style to the thick, distinct lines which now dominate her image. Juxtaposed against small journals and A4 is the monumental mural covering the wall facing the entrance, entitled Transparency (2020). Martin created the mural on-site, adding canvases in and adding a layer of three-dimensionality to the criss-crossing lines, eyes, stick-figures, and floating letters throughout the work. A time-sensitive piece, Transparency is Martin’s inner experience made manifest in her visual style; the words ‘knowledge’, ‘self-growth’, and ‘accountability’ are her main themes and the qualities which clearly govern her practice.
Transparency, 2020. Ink and paint on wall and panels
In the centre of the room are three sofas and a table covered with found objects, which have been painted white and drawn on by Martin. Items like the clock I noticed are drawn on with the intent to play with conceptions of seriousness and play; Martin’s drawings transform the works into contemplative pieces, much in the style of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917. A space has been created that is all Martin’s own, which toes the line between adult and child, serious and jokey, art and kitsch. But the line continues to dissolve as one realises that Martin does not distinguish between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art or culture, as evidenced by her ‘uniform’, a leather jacket and white high-tops, which are covered in black and white paint and ink and cements Martin’s mantra to ‘draw on everything’.
Found objects drawn on in the artist’s signature style
In the second and final room, Martin’s commercial success is explored and considered by Martin and those closest to her in an audio-visual installation. Martin was chosen to create designs for MaxMara, Puma, Tiffany & Co., as well as the New York City Ballet. She exists both in traditional art institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts and MoMA (NY), as well as in the world of culture.
Martin creating Prism in Motion (MaxMara), 2016. Shantellmartin.art
The two series which I found most fascinating by Martin were her works from her residency at the MIT Media Lab and her most recent photo series with photographer Theo Coulombe and filmmaker Laksmi Hedemark, entitled On the Road. At the Media Lab, Martin explored the intersection between her art and circuit boards, which ended in a series of circuit boards designed by Martin and called Storyboards. Each work tells a specific story told by Martin and her drawings, but the circuit boards themselves function as sensors. Rather than present art and technology as naturally antithetical, they are presented as an integrated whole and reinforce the interconnectedness of art and life, and technology and life.
In 2017, Martin, Hedemark and Coulombe embarked on a cross-country road trip from the west to east coasts of the United States which resulted in a series of photographs called On the Road. In these photographs, Martin kneels against the backdrop of the interstate highway, leaving her mark with chalk on the ground. In the works from the NEW/NOW exhibition, the images are blown up and Martin has written over the images again, leaving her mark both ephemerally and permanently.
Wyoming somewhere, 2017. C-print. Image courtesy Standard Space
The most poignant piece from the show is Dear Grandmother (2002-2015), in which needlepoint images and texts created by Martin and her grandmother, Dot Martin, are hung against a black-and-white background which symbolises Martin’s biracial heritage. The piece is a reflection on her past and a promise of the future, and reinforces the intensely personal process that is Martin’s art.
Dear Grandmother, 2002-2015. Needlepoint.
Shantell Martin: NEW/NOW is at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT until 18 April 2021. More information, including interviews with the artist, can be found at https://www.nbmaa.org/exhibitions/new-now-shantell-martin