I met Thomas Martin on social media and was intrigued by his work which currently consists mainly of drawings. He lives in Queens, New York (my hometown) and his work http://thomasmartinstudio.com/ makes me think of geometry, architecture and the building blocks of things. What inspires him? Check out our cool chat and find out.
MICHAEL: Hey Thomas! Your work is very cool. They look mainly like works on paper. They're spare and minimal, but I can't tell whether you're
constructing ideas or deconstructing them. It doesn't really matter because the work looks great, but what's your inspiration?
THOMAS: Thanks, Michael. Yes, all of my work is on paper. Rather than the construction or deconstruction of an idea, increasingly, each of my drawings is a variation on ideas that have been continuously developing out of my previous work. Every drawing is related to its predecessors conceptually, but also, much of the time, they have a physical connection as well. For instance, paper for many small drawings are cut from the same larger sheet, paper is used as a mask before being made a drawing itself, residual material from one drawing smudges and scuffs the paper of the next, and so on. This shared history, along with intuition, creates the conditions for variation from one drawing to the next. I find it hard for me to pinpoint specific inspiration. Everything that comes in is coming out in some way; it's all gris for the mill, though as someone working with abstraction, it's not always evident how these things are being manifested. Seeing really great art, specifically drawing, is very important to me. There are some great drawings at the Morgan Library right now which I plan to return to before the show ends.
MICHAEL: I suppose that given the type of art that you create, it must get frustrating because people always expect the work to have a narrative and meaning. Many artists use abstraction simply to capture the mood of the moment. Is that true in your case?
THOMAS: Most of the people who see my work are artists or in the art world. They know the vocabulary. When I do get the opportunity to show my work to someone who doesn't, I'm really happy to share. If they're curious, these kinds of discussions can be more rewarding. One point I want to make is that I would never say that my work is without meaning. I would say instead that there isn't a "message" to my work. Sometimes the confusion comes because people expect that there's something they are supposed to "get." It's sort of like the way they teach poetry in schools, as if poems are some kind of code. If you can figure out how to decode it, you'll understand what the poet was trying to "say." This kind of an attitude isolates meaning from the form. In my work, these are unified- there's no way of thinking about the subject of my work without thinking about how it was made and what it looks like. To answer your question, I wouldn't say that my work is expressionist, though there are sometimes elements that may appear so. It's more about working through ideas. In some ways, all of my drawings are like studies for each other. Abstraction allows me to focus in on my formal and conceptual concerns.
MICHAEL: How are you feeling now about being an artist? This is such a difficult economic time for everyone which means few people are buying art. The super-rich are supporting dead, famous artists, but not emerging artists.
THOMAS: I think it's unfortunate that there are not more collectors taking risks on lesser known artists and it's sad to see people coveting bad art when there's a ton of good art out there that's much cheaper. The art world is an ecosystem out of whack. But I'm barely in the food chain and thankfully not dependent on sales to survive. I don't think much about it.
MICHAEL: What's your earliest memory of art? When did you become aware that you were part of art and art was part of you? Do you come from an artistic family?
THOMAS: My earliest relevant memory involves trying to paint a tree with watercolor. I may have been five. I used too much water and as the paper warped, the green of the tree flowed outside of where I wanted it to be. I was frustrated by the lack of control that I had. All through school I was afraid to use watercolor. It's interesting that now my work involves thinking about control and lack of control, though I don't think it's in any way related to this episode. Drawing was always important to me, but my upbringing told me I would need a job so I didn't really fantasize about being an artist until high school. I wanted to be an animator (which I did not realize was way too tedious a job for someone like me) and when I applied to art school, I applied to illustration programs. But around the same time, Robert Hughes’ "American Visions" aired on PBS. Shortly after, the Broida Collection was showed at the Orlando Museum of Art (we lived in Florida at the time). From these two experiences, I learned about De Kooning, Rauschenberg, and Guston. By the time I was accepted into Ringling School of Art & Design, I had already made up my mind to be an artist. To your last question, I don't come from an artistic family though art was always seeping in from the margins. For example, I grew up hearing about my great grandmother’s first cousin, distant but close enough to claim, Soutine. Of course the whole family just thought he was crazy and a terrible painter, but they were still proud. I've tried to explain his appeal, but they won't hear it.
MICHAEL: Isn't interesting how drawing is the oldest and most accessible genre and yet it still plays second fiddle to painting, photography and performance art? It's humble and honest. Isn't there a difference between drawing and sketching?
THOMAS: I don't like to think of it that way, though there is the temptation. That's the way the market sees things - painting is hot right now, drawing is not, etc. The fact is all art is a continuum. Most artists may specialize in one material or genre, but we're all pulling in influences from everywhere else. Photography had a tremendous effect on the history of painting, but at the same time, early on photographers were trying to make work that looked like paintings. In the same way, sometimes I'm making drawings that function more like painting and other times I'm thinking about sculpture as I work. There are distinctions for sure, but good painting and good performance deserves attention. The real problem is when the art getting attention isn't good. As for drawing and sketching, sketching is just a type of drawing. All drawing is about seeing and sketching is an attempt at a certain type of seeing. In any case, it's not really a part of my process.
MICHAEL: You're in New York. Does the city inspire your work at all or would you be creating essentially the same work regardless? And what do you think about the art world today? Do you think NYC is still the center of the art world?
THOMAS: New York is very important, but it's not the center of the art world anymore. There is no real center of the art world anymore though I think the internet is a source of cohesion. This is a good thing in its capacity to generate new communities and democratize art. But the internet is also disembodying, cerebral, and flat. For me, it's really important to be in a place where there's always good art around that can be experienced in person. There's also a ton of other things about New York that make it better for me than other cities that have, say, cheaper rents. I think the environment is going to influence any artists work. Construction, urban parks, scale, population density and diversity are all things that are important to me. That said, I don't think much about the world outside of my studio when I'm working, though I know it seeps in in various ways.
MICHAEL: Finally Thomas, Where are you now in your evolution as an artist? What concepts and ideas have you intrigued right now?
THOMAS: I've been working on a series of batches of small drawings. Each group has been limited to a certain structure and number of materials. I hesitate to call these studies since that implies that they are in preparation for some larger, more serious piece. More importantly, I want the thinking and problem solving of a study to be present in each drawing.
MICHAEL: I can certainly see that they are. Thanks for the chat Thomas. Love your work.
Check out Thomas Martin and his work at http://thomasmartinstudio.com/.