Our Mount Airy cafe society has its perks: walk into the High Point for a scone and a latte and find contemporary art. Recently, I was surprised to find the work of artist Don Martiny, a recent transplant to our fair city. His unassuming, shallow relief sculptures take on an old precept of expressionist painting directly, where the brush mark was key. This leads to fallout with proto-pop artists; Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg played with mixing the (mock) abstract expressionist paint-mode with Duchampian found objects, especially after kingpin-drip specialist Jackson Pollock’s death in August, 1956.

In the late fifties, there was a battle between the formalists (guys who wielded brushes) and those who approached art philosophically. Marks by painters were full of “aura,” each physical gesture an icon. De Kooning is the best example. By the early sixties, the battle then moved on to pop artists, proper. Lichtenstein played with “demystfying” the mark, dismissing evidence of genius at every stroke. His brushmark: a signature, blown-up cartoon with benday dots. Yes, that old chestnut. Next, google Warhol, Oldenburg and Rosenquist. You can look them up on Wikipedia, or buy a bloody book.

Contemplating Martiny’s larger works made with brooms versus the “studies,” it occurs to me that these might have easily become fully sculptural and made their way off the walls and out into Carpenter’s Lane, thereby literally marking territory. Quite a gesture. Martiny’s work comes off lively, but a little cold. A strange anomaly: they may be too successful and possibly somewhat rigid in concept. Would the addition of some uncontrolled element add spice? (Say, modulated color derived from the action of mixing.) The investigation stops somewhere at “local’ color. When is a single color used in art? For flat abstraction, oddly enough, or in cast multiples! Hard-core Expressionists worth their salt mix paint on their forearms. Francis Bacon had to give it up for health problems. Lead poisoning anyone?

Nowadays, there are multiple approaches in which emotive mark-making is assumed to be banal, an almost antique notion, or, at least, ironic. (That was very Nineties, that neo- abstraction, and so dull, stressing the non-emotive, conceptual intention and execution.) Happily, Mr. Martiny does not go there. His work begs the larger hitorical question out loud. Why is a human mark still viable when we’d obviously prefer to be machines ourselves? Why is it possible for human gestures to remain something much more amid the insipid digital reproduction? Here, indeed, lies the rub. In the meantime, Martiny’s bright work retains the formal beauty of modernity. These issues are still pertinent and I don’t care particularly how well they work thematically at the High Point. Here, on Carpenter’s Lane, Mr. Martiny definitely leaves his mark and gets me thinking again.

Dale Levy

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