The works of Paul Martinson are both poetic and troubling. They span subliminal and liminal realms with effortless agility. References to the known world are complicated with nonsensical paradigms; a fish in a light-bulb; a biomorphic bird. The lyrical is rendered in unexpected juxtapositions, and yet there remains a sense of threat, a transcendent reality to be accessed beyond biological classifications. Despite the delicate, meticulous handling of surface treatment and the soft gradation of subtle hues, it is as though Martinson is trying to get “behind the scenes” of life itself.
What makes a fish, a fish? Why is a light-bulb not a fish? How does a bird relate to a fish? These types of questions, although ridiculous on first reading, reveal a quest for epistemological knowledge, that is to say an appetite for the knowledge of knowledge itself. Martinson boasts a career as a research technician, committed to the science of nature, he asks questions to explain connections between seemingly disparate incidents of vitalism. Reflecting upon his time in the 1980s, whilst assisting the eminent Dr Neville Grace in his studies of Ruminant Mineral Metabolism, Martinson explains, “people talk about animals and humans as somehow separate; as if we aren’t animals. To me there is no distinction whatsoever and never has been, but my time back in the ‘80s made this idea indelible and all-consuming to express visually.”
Although reference to a Surrealist vernacular would not be entirely misplaced, Martinson does not stop to antagonise absurd serendipities, but rather to get behind their meaning. He attempts to illustrate what would otherwise be considered the inexplicable. He says, “there is no real fundamental difference between a bird or a fish, a person or any animal from my own perspective.” To this end, the compendium of works assembled over years defies categorization as a cohesive body. However, it could be said that clusters of works trace biological organisation reminiscent of species identification such as birds in jars, hybrids, etc.
If one were to identify a unifying theme for Martinson’s practice, the issue of space and time would present itself like an enduring continuum. His nimble interpretation of Einstein’s space/time theory is illustrated through the playful conceptual experimentation of a fish in a light-bulb. Martinson acknowledges the cryptic impossibility of fully grasping Einstein’s concepts and attempts to capture the superior logic through the visual representation of time and space contained in a light-bulb. He explains, “the space of the bulb is the time the fish have [space and time are one thing]. Each of us exists as if in a bulb, limited by its boundaries ... but giving off reflected light that carries information out into the universe forever.” Martinson’s succinct explanation and exquisite visual prompts make an impossibly lofty concept accessible to the learned and naïve viewer alike. The generous didactic function of these works affirms both the visual and conceptual charm of images and content.
More recently, Martinson has engaged with a sombre style of restraint. It would be remiss not to acknowledge Buller and Hammond in the contextual tone of his large “gray” works, such as Hide in the Deep (2016) and Trance Dance (2013). There is an undeniable homage to past legacy, however Martinson advances the previous narrative into a more contemporary epoch. It is as though the birds alluded to by Hammond, have reached their final destination retreating back to biological distinctives as if passing into the shadow of extinction; a Kokako wrapped in the flannelette comfort of eternal pyjamas, entering the deep sleep of extermination. These images are not easy to live with, but they are a necessary reflection on what Martinson observes as “the fabric of space and time wrapped around the animal decaying with the inevitable entropy that makes all things pass.”
Martinson courageously considers a myriad of deep philosophical issues. His pedantic technique reveals the intense concentration he exerts on cognitive complexities. Informed by his background in Biochemistry, Martinson muses at the significance of quantum mechanics for art in days to come. He explains, “[Quantum mechanics] is the most precise science ever known ... making predictions that are profoundly accurate to the tiniest fractions ... while simultaneously maintaining a view of reality that is totally counterintuitive and disturbing. Andre Breton and the Dadaists would have loved it.” It is the collusion of these strands of thought and reflection that fill the works of Martinson with a palpable sense of anticipation. It is as though each piece has a heartbeat, a hum, a murmur of life either arriving or departing. The viewer is invested in the musings of the artist himself. Like a visual objectification of conceptual revelation, we are transported into the reflections of a scientist coming to grips with the mysteries of life as they unfold and return into the unknown.
Essay by Elizabeth Brookbanks
BORN: 1956, Palmerston North
EDUCATION: NZ Certificate of Science in Biology, Palmerston North Polytechnic
AWARDS: Wai Art Awards - Runner Up (2008); Montana Book Awards, Extinct Birds of New Zealand - Finalist (2007); Norsewear Art Awards - Finalist (2003); North Shore City Art Awards - Merit Award (1994)
COLLECTIONS: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington; Waikato Museum of Art and History, Hamilton; Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Wairarapa
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: Sleeper Dreamer Space Adventure, Aratoi, Wairarapa Museum of Art and History (2017); Figures in the Landscape, Waiheke Art Gallery, Auckland (2012); The Inimitable Mister Hopkins: The Barry Hopkins Art Collection, Waikato Museum of Art & History, Hamilton (2009); Mind Games: An exhibition of Surrealism in Aotearoa, Hastings City Art Gallery (2009); Wairarapa Review, Aratoi, Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton (2007); New Work (accompanying exhibition to Extinct Birds of New Zealand book launch), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington (2006); Wairarapa Review, Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton (2005); Crosslinks, Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, Wellington (2002); REAL VISION, Robert McDougall, Christchurch Art Gallery (1993); Huia, Te Manawa, Palmerston North (1993)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Art seen’ by James Dignan, Otago Daily Times, Feb 2012; ‘Bird’s-eye view’ by Lorna Thornber, Her, Nov 2010, pp 116-119; ‘More than a touch of strangeness’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Oct 2010; Atherfold, Kim, Venus in Free Fall: The Art of Paul Martinson 2004-2008, dissertation as part of Post-Graduate Diploma Art History, University of Auckland, 2009; Tennyson, Alan and Paul Martinson, Extinct Birds of New Zealand, Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2006; Martinson, Paul, New Zealand Birds, Auckland: Grantham House, 1991; Gill, Brian and Paul Martinson, New Zealand’s Extinct Birds, Auckland: Random Century, 1991