Time, Life, and Taxes: Barbara Martin’s Now and Then, at BAYarts

Barbara Martin, Loon, scratchboard with acrylic in a vintage frame, 21 X 28 inches

It’s an extremely varied collection of media and message in Barbara Martin’s exhibit, Now and Then, on view August 11 through October 7 at BAYarts.  The artist’s highly skilled scratchboard portraits of birds mingle with found object assemblage and 2D collage in a couple of different veins, and one larger installation that makes a category of its own. Taken altogether, the show is a kind of portrait of the artist, exploring a range of her interests and pursuits and concerns. But the patina of the found objects, combined with the artist’s skill (especially in the portraits of birds) deliver a larger, often darker message in a spoonful-of-sugar kind of way.

Barbara Martin, Rain (detail), installation with plastic tags.

In that category of its own, there’s a colorful installation called Rain, hanging floor-to-ceiling and covering an entire wall of the gallery. Rain is made from linked plastic tags from American Guidance Service, a textbook company. The piece has something in common with another of her installations, Grapple, at the Big @SS @RT Show at Lakeland Community College, which used a multitude of yellow ribbons to honor the lives of more than 1500 people killed in gun violence in the US. This one at BAYarts, is a bit gentler. The artist has had the collection of tags for years, appreciating them for their color and the way they can hook together to make a chain. “I painted the wall behind them gray and told myself they represented the colors of rain as it fell on a gray day,” she said, responding to questions by email. “I hoped that for all the pain and anxiety someone might be going through in life, they might still find some joy if they could just see the refracted colors in rain.”

The installation points to common threads through all the works—the collection and re-use of discarded objects, and also hope or optimism in the face of anxiety or struggle. All the pieces in this exhibit, varied as they are in their media and form, involve re-use of something Martin has collected, apparently both for appreciation and out of reluctance to let something useful go to waste. But keep looking.

Barbara Martin, Crowned Crane, scratchboard and acrylic in a vintage frame.

The easiest works to take in, and those which most readily convey the artist’s skill, are the scratchboard portraits of birds. These are not little birds, incidental in landscapes: they are iconic, commanding creatures, treated like university presidents: a loon, a bald eagle, a blue-footed booby, a flamingo, a crowned crane.  They are beautifully rendered—gracefully and meticulously in a way that is highly detailed but never seems forced or even careful: they just seem to come out like that. Martin studied at Cleveland Institute of Art and earned her BFA in painting at Ohio University before having a career as a graphic designer, and all that draftsperson-ship certainly shows. So you might think these portraits began with that skill, and in an inescapable sense that is true. However, in an interview, Martin says they began in a way that might sound capricious or whimsical–with their frames: each is presented in the kind of elaborate frame used to celebrate portraits of family members, or partners in a law firm, or, indeed, university presidents. She says she had been acquiring such frames for years, simply because she liked them.  She started making birds, she says, because she wanted something regal looking, because that was what belonged in such frames.  Such birds hardly need any accentuation beyond their own postures and crests and intensely focused eyes, but in some cases Martin has added crowns, in case you didn’t get the regal message, taking them beyond plain celebration and into the realm of humor. These are just fun to look at, and all the rest gives them a satisfying depth—as well as connection to the rest of the artist’s practice.

Barbara Martin, Flamingo with Crown, Scratchboard and acrylic in a vintage frame.

The connection is that things matter: lives, objects once useful or beloved, or even historic events. Documenting or celebrating or giving new life to something that might go un-noticed or which may have lost its obvious value seems to matter very much to this artist. But keep looking.

Other veins of work in the show point more directly to the artist’s conceptual concerns. The idea of time as a ruling force in life shows up more than once.  In A Little Journey Back In Time, an historic photo of an unidentified man is collaged with a copy of a booklet from the “Little Journeys” series of profiles of historic scientists, musicians, and artists—in this case Sir Isaac Newton. All that is juxtaposed against a clock face, presented in one of those antique, elaborate frames. The clock reads like a halo, casting the man as a saint or some other figure worthy of adoration.

Barbara Martin, Measured Time, collage with found ojects.

Another collage—Measured Time—takes its circular form from a vintage schoolhouse clock. At its center is one of those old-school dial calculators, in this case a “production estimator.” Radiating from that are clock hands made from wooden segments of a ruler. Floating around that center are the skeleton of a hand, several links from chains, and gears, and other clock faces, and postage stamps, and a Monopoly game card from the Community Chest—Bank Error in Your Favor: collect $200. While the card seems like a stroke of fortune, the overarching message in this piece is that we are measured through time by production, as we work ourselves to the bone.

Barbara Martin, Play Along, assemblage with found objects.

Martin’s three-dimensional found object assemblage continues her exploration of life’s torments and difficulties.  In Confession, a  doll is posed with hands in the praying position, looking out as if jailed behind a wrought iron cage (perhaps of ideology), all presented on an ornate wooden wall sconce, evocative of church décor. In Sitting on the Altar of Happiness and Despair, a marionette in a sitting position is surrounded by a variety of pills—capsules and tablets in a gauzy white alcove.  Another piece, Play Along, takes the form of a doll’s house, each room revealing a new field of torment: we see clocks and other allusions to time, the dichotomy of truth and falsehood, dominoes and dice and other game pieces for gambling or just taking risks in life, and an old school telephone dial: perhaps you have to make a phone call; perhaps you have to answer; such anxiety! Cherubs and toy military vehicles roll and cast judgement over the whole scene.

Barbara Martin, April 15, collage.

The largest two-dimensional piece in the show, April 15, is a collage layering warplanes over a map of the world. The title, Martin says, refers to the annual tax deadline. The juxtaposition of the tax deadline with the world map and the war planes is to highlight that “most of the 8 billion people on earth go to work every day to pay money for weapons, ostensibly to keep us safe from one another,” she says. “I question how that’s working out.”

You could look at this show, and come away thinking about nostalgia for found objects with beautiful patina, or just about all those nice birds. It doesn’t look like a political show, or one wrestling with life, death, time, religion, the military industrial complex, and pharmaceuticals.  But that’s exactly what it is.

Now and Then is on view in the BAYarts Sullivan Family Gallery August 11 through October 7.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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