An abiding interest in the surreal and the symbolic has seen Paul Martinson shift away from realism in search of a style that expresses the poetry of the human mind. Electric Zoo demonstrates the artist’s personal, liberal approach to painting that allows a free flow of imagery and ideas, while retaining the drawing-based figurative style which has persisted throughout his career as a painter.
This is a distinct body of work characterised by an economy of symbolism and compositions which are surreal and poetic; a cluster of creatures poised under a glass dome, a fish swimming in a water-filled light bulb. The Venus figure, an archetype of female beauty which has recurred in Martinson’s recent work, is notably absent in Electric Zoo, which is instead populated entirely with enigmatic creatures whose very human poses and conscious facial expressions create clear anthropomorphic references. The sensuous context of Butterfly Effect even more forcibly alludes to human presence, with the recently vacated sheets suggesting the imprint of its human sleeper.
Martinson has been painting since the 1980s and was commissioned by Te Papa Tongarewa in 2006 to paint extinct birdlife, resulting in the seminal publication Extinct Birds of New Zealand. As a consequence of this major project, Martinson began to seek a more subjective working style, abandoning his earlier reliance on research and objective imagery and focussing on personal concerns, interests and philosophies. Given the prevalence of symbolism in his recent works, it is no surprise that Freudian psychoanalysis and the Surrealist notion of Psychic Automatism form the basis of Martinson’s artistic philosophy.
The movement towards the symbolic and the establishment of this intuitive style has given rise to experimentation in media and materials, with Martinson increasingly working in oils on board. This development has created opportunities to emphasise the emotional properties of colour and light as well as formal composition. The unparalleled attention to representational detail remains obvious in his depictions of birds and other animals and the textural range of his paintings creates a rich, lifelike effect. In many of these works, such as Glass Bottle Ramblers, we see colour treated in a symbolic manner, with the deep green and black tones used for emotional effect rather than for their realism. While these works demonstrate increased subtlety in terms of palette and composition, they are more complicated in terms of the artist’s engagement with the complexities of light as a salient feature in itself.
With Electric Zoo, Paul Martinson utilises these formal developments to enable the exploration of universal conditions and anxieties. The tensions between real and imagined, human and animal, light and dark, are borne out in these works, which address notions of agency and power and evoke various psychological states. This encourages a deeper engagement with the work as the viewer is invited to speculate on the intellectual or conceptual theme of the work while instinctively connecting with it on an emotional level.
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