San Francisco

Susan Martin

Wirtz Art

A large part of the appeal of Susan Martin’s floor piece Sprinkle, 1990, resides in its enchanting combination of mysteriousness and sheer sensual beauty. Although plenty of art being made these days resists easy reading through the use of enigmatic or peculiar materials, such work is often unabashedly repulsive in one way or another. In contrast, Martin’s transformative manipulation of quirky materials heightens their seductive appeal. Consisting of a seemingly haphazard pile of waxy, dark gray disks, Sprinkle’s friendly scatter almost invites an investigatory caress (as its fingerprinted surface testifies). Like the Japanese dry garden it resembles, the calculatedly artless arrangement inspires an open-ended meditation. Are the disks animal, vegetable, or mineral? Are they heavy (like lead, steel, or wood) or light (wax, paper. plastic)? Are they manufactured—an idea suggested by the faint concentric markings on their surfaces—or, as they are different sizes, are these markings annular registrations of age or growth? What purpose do they, did they serve? Is the whitish, ambery dot in the center of the face of each a marking, as on a game piece?

Although discovering what the forms are made of (and how) puts these questions to rest, this information makes the piece more, rather than less, suggestive. Big rolls of paper of varying diameters—the kind that comes wound on a cardboard tube—were cut into pieces, then impregnated with wax and paint. Around the central, wax-filled core of each slice, the concentric rings of paper remain faintly visible through the smooth, softly greasy sheen of its shell.

Armed with this information, the piece begins to resemble a pile of compressed documents, sealed irrevocably like petrified film canisters, or stacks of fused phonograph records. In fact, as one resemblance suggests itself, another elbows it out of the way. These goofy, giant-sized Necco wafers could just as easily represent cartoon voids—the neat black holes in the ground that antagonists like The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote pick up and move around at will, in their attempts to ambush one another.

Similarly, the formal gesture of Sprinkle’s elegant scatter refers as much to Minimal/Conceptual antecedents as it does to this stacked deck of wildly metaphorical references. Still, Martin’s use of wax for its preservative connotations seems to suggest that an enigmatic nostalgia dominates in her work, just as it does in arte povera, or the California assemblage movement of the ’60s. Like plaster (used by Martin in another small piece included in the show), resin, or Rhoplex, wax can be used to transform both the pedestrian and the perishable into art, deliberately creating an emotional, sentimental space.

Maria Porges