Los Angeles

Daniel Joseph Martinez

The Project

I’ve had reservations in the past about works by Daniel Joseph Martinez; they felt like exercises in self-gratification and self-promotion ostensibly designed to push social buttons. (Think of his reputation-catapulting I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE buttons at the 1993 Whitney Biennial.) Martinez has seemed at times to be a kind of political pyromaniac, less interested inputting out fires or harnessing their energy than in fanning the flames and basking in their glow. His work in this recent show, however, an animatronic sculpture that had the gallery to itself, came as a surprise I hesitate to call pleasant. The piece is a kind of grand finale to a series of photographs Martinez has created over the past few years, in which, inspired by Nietzsche’s call to destroy idols, he presented himself destroyed, with the help of prosthetics and makeup, in a variety of manners. Here Martinez has passed up easy provocation in favor of stirring a more complicated stew.

Entering the gallery one found a replica of the artist (like the Martinez of yesteryear, with fewer tattoos and more hair than he has in the photos) dressed in work clothes and kneeling on the floor, elbows cocked, forearms outstretched, each hand clutching a razor blade and each wrist bearing a diagonal slash. Titled happiness is over-rated, 2002, it is an eerie self-portrait made of silicon rubber stretched over a fiberglass skeleton. Powered by computerized pneumatic devices, the animatronic being periodically awakens from its dormant /dead state and (in jerky yet naturalistic moves accompanied by the hissing of air pistons and the occasional roar of a compressor) ritualistically repeats the slicing act documented in the wounds while letting out a recorded belly laugh in the voice of the artist.

The work positions itself at an art-historical crossroads one can hardly map. Turn left at the self-inflicted violence of Gina Pane; proceed toward the vulnerability in the early work of Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta, and Marina Abramović; take a spin through the 3-D realism of Duane Hanson and John D’Andrea and the hyperrealism of Ron Mueck and the Chapmans. Of course, first you have to stop off at the how-do-you-like-me-now attitude of Lynda Benglis’s self-advertisement of the ’70s, and you might also detour by the human-as-artifact/specimen strategies of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and James Luna.

The work reveals the same embodied angst and intensity found in Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois as well as early Ed Kienholz, and it stirs the sense of disorientation evoked by Duchamp’s Etant Donnés and the odd intimate distance of Andy Warhol, who spoke of wanting to be a machine and had a hand in the creation of his own animatronic portrait, which recently came out of the mothballs to be sold by its developer to a private collector. But while Martinez’s piece references many, it quotes none. Rather, it establishes its own position by weaving an intricate web that includes everything from passion plays to horror movies, from natural- and civic-history displays to the “happiest place on earth” found just down Interstate 5 at Disneyland—a site of pioneering work not just in animatronics but in the blend of fantasy, simulation, entertainment, violence, politics, and social stratification that Martinez’s sculpture so darkly mirrors. This might seem to be the product of a profoundly narcissistic impulse, but as you look at the piece you quickly forget (if you knew to begin with) that it is a portrait (or a version)of the artist. Despite observable specifics of the figure’s class, age, gender, and ethnicity, Martinez has produced a kind of everyman/-woman. Any viewer can get uncomfortably comfortable with it; you want to kneel down and look into its eyes, and when you do, it’s haunting. It is by far the most successful work Martinez has produced—comic, tragic, and genuinely thought-provoking.

Christopher Miles