Deborah Martin’s Art Makes a New Connection
By Susan Rand Brown, Banner Correspondent
Source: Provincetown Banner July 27, 2017 pp. B9, B11
Presented as alone in their private worlds, the softly lit children in Deborah Martin’s new series, “Portraits of Autism,” leave an after-image. Martin is best known for painting Provincetown’s out of the way cottages on the verge of gentrification, and trailers in the California desert seemingly abandoned by present- day Okies. The new work is just beginning to evolve as a series. Always drawn to scenes communicating vulnerability, loss and loss’ opposite, persistence, in these portraits Martin explores similarly complex emotions within the landscape of the souls of autistic children.
In “Eddie at Five,” a boy looks out with tender purity. The innocent surprise filling his large, round eyes pulls the viewer in. Tulip lips convey the sweetness of a summer strawberry. Somehow his striped shirt makes Eddie look even thinner, as if a strong gust could carry him off.
The other portraits in Martin’s new series are harder to look at. The velvety quality of her brushwork softens but does not disguise the children’s confused yearnings.
The paintings, part of a group show at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 28, at AMP: Art Market Provincetown at 432 Commercial St., are in keeping with AMP’s sense of itself as a “live” contemporary gallery, encouraging process and dialogue. “Portraits of Autism” includes poetry and prose written by the children in the paintings and their family members.
Though she’s now based in Southern California, Martin has a substantial local history. At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she studied painting and then turned to photography, working mostly in black and white. Throughout the 1990s, she lived in Provincetown year-round and established herself as an art photographer. Then, in the early 2000s, she relocated to Los Angeles and returned to painting, using photography as a tool in location studies.
During that time, she built herself a “massive” combination studio and rolling kitchen stage set, which she would rent for television and film work. There were fashion shoots, a Doritos commercial, a Leonardo DiCaprio film, a video for the Black Eyed Peas and more.
“Every time I picked up the phone to accommodate someone from the film industry, I had to put my paintbrush down,” is how Martin describes that juggling act. “In order to move forward with my work, I was going to need to spend more time on it.” She moved from L.A. to a small, unincorporated desert town 100 miles away, with “fabulous old cars buried in sand,” and soon was painting full-time.
In 2011, she applied for and received a William Freed and Lillian Orlowsky Foundation Grant, offered to painters over age 45, and administered through the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. This led to an exhibition at PAAM, where she showed paintings inspired by the Outer Cape (“Narrow Lands”) and work from her starker “Back of Beyond” series, based on the arid terrain of Southern California’s Mojave Desert. Sam Shepard’s languid, isolated characters would be at home in Deborah Martin’s landscapes.
Following the PAAM exhibit, a series of summer shows at Kobalt Gallery followed, and with that, Martin, while still living and painting on the West Coast, had returned to the Provincetown arts community where she remains connected. This is her first year showing with AMP.
The children and young adults of “Portraits of Autism” do not “sit” for Martin the way subjects did for Alice Neel, for example, a portrait painter who, like Martin, reveals the person inside the skin. Most of the photographic imagery Martin uses to paint comes to her from the children’s families. This slight remove — with no immediate interaction sets up a process allowing Martin to work freely, exploring what the child communicates in photographs without potentially stressful encounters.
Painting a figure this way presents certain technical challenges, however. “The photograph might have a horrible composition, or be out of focus,” Martin says. “Some are old and discolored. The project is pushing me to make decisions... Where do I place the child on the canvas? How do I get skin tones right?”
She layers the canvas to establish a nonrealistic, dreamlike atmosphere, then suspends the child in this space. The result is haunting.
“This is not photorealism,” Martin says. “I don’t even call myself a realist. It’s not about copying the photograph for me.”
As the project has evolved, Martin has been embraced by a family with three children on the autism spectrum: their portraits are titled “Elizabeth,” “Wolfgang” and “Buhdda.” We see Buhdda with his service dog, facing away from the camera.
“I am trying to capture the essence of each child,” Martin says. “What motivates me is using the visual arts to create awareness. What does not motivate me would be to feel I have to paint something that is quote- unquote marketable,” she says. “I paint because I’m a painter.”
Martin has applied for a Guggenheim grant to continue these studies. Regardless, “this is a long term project for me,” she says. For Martin as well as her subjects, it’s about persisting over the long haul.