New York

Walter Martin


Walter Martin’s project as an artist involves the sculptural remaking of mundane objects associated with a nostalgic view of the commonplace. Martin’s interest in time and its random manifestations brings an imperative resonance to his ambitious new works. Here, Martin offered a bizarre lopsided grand piano and a multipartite work aptly titled Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, 1987–88, which consists of six extraordinary grandfather clocks. Although the piano was the first work a viewer would have seen when entering the gallery space, the grandfather clocks were clearly the central focus of the show. Martin builds these “clocks” from large solid blocks of wood, which he sculpts and then paints a perfectly distressed dark brown. He has hacked away at the bases as if he were taking a metaphorical ax to time itself. Martin apparently sees the bases of these clocks as an odd sort of temporal geometry, pedestals on which temporal marking systems are displayed.

Each of Martin’s grand timepieces has a personality of its own, differentiated by a few quirky characteristics, including the shape of its crown, the style of its delicately pointed hands, the degree to which its base is battered, and writing on its face (a particularly beautiful example spells out “Brooklyn”). As its eloquent title suggests, Martin sees certain correlations between these clocks and human existence. To imbue these works with an almost metaphysical presence is to posit the structure of time as a pinnacle at which memory, truth, fiction, and fantasy converge and disappear into the void. In equating his “mechanical operation” with “the spirit,” Martin makes all kinds of dangerous assumptions about the transcendent nature of his work. Fortunately, they all pay off brilliantly. Within a commentary on the realm of creativity and the act of creation, Martin implies that like objects have their own personal tales to tell, even within an ordered structure such as the one imposed in the making of art. Thousands if not tens of thousands of artists paint, draw, build, photograph, and sculpt. It is individuality alone that sets one work apart from another. That each clock has been mutilated by its creator is a powerful commentary on the simultaneous strength and fragility of the creative process. Just as an artist creates a unique representation of an individual existence, the inner workings of that creation are put in danger. To expose the heart of creation is to hack away at the vulnerability of the very seed necessary for inspiration.

Martin’s clocks are suffused with a strange stillness. They speak yet make no noise. To move through the gallery with its two facing walls lined with these works was to ascertain a language in which words become part of a superfluous structure. Martin’s clocks speak within a cloud of collective silence. Just as words and lines of a poem operate through the power of suggestion, these works contribute silently to a larger cognitive meaning; they manipulate the viewer to a point of understanding. Martin’s language rings with truth and keen perception. As part of an incipient poetic art movement spearheaded by Ross Bleckner and Annette Lemieux, his clocks make quite an impression. As a development from rather than as a reaction to the art of the dead, Martin’s clocks are stunning objects of the heart, mind, and soul.

Christian Leigh