Volume 26 - Number 10 - March 6, 2003

A Peace of Nature 

By David Brickman

Country Trash:

New Works by Stephen V. Martonis

Albany Center Galleries, through April 4

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “country trash,” I picture rusting farm equipment, pickup trucks up on blocks, and maybe a few of the sort of unfortunate humans who are apt to hang around such wreckage. But the tongue-in-cheek title of a full-gallery installation by Stephen V. Martonis at Albany Center Galleries masks the truth that Country Trash is in fact a shameless celebration of nature.

Admittedly, there are a few items in the show (such as rusted zinc buckets, bits of barbed wire, the guts of a TV) that might belong in a dumpster—but the real trash (i.e. treasure) consists of items lovingly culled from the woods and fields of rural New York: seed pods, cocoons, cicada casings, birds’ and bees’ nests, deer bones, abandoned snakeskins and so on.

Martonis is essentially a painter-turned-sculptor, and his creations largely tread the line between two and three dimensions. For this show he designed large and small wall-hung pieces, quirky combines, and a delicate soundtrack, all of it revolving around the gallery’s central column so as to embrace, rather than deny, its imposition on the space.

His primary medium, he will tell you, is bread dough. Over nine years of experimenting with the gooey stuff, Martonis claims to have perfected a formula that is stable when dry. He builds extremely heavy-duty stretchers, covers them with burlap, and works the dough into the cloth, whereupon it shrinks, cracks and hardens into the biomorphic shapes the artist has previsualized.

The dough also takes on a golden-brown color, which Martonis embellishes with tar to create a look akin to bronze—or scorched earth, depending on your point of view. Using various forms, including balls, balloons, boxes, cloth, rope and whatever else comes to hand, Martonis builds these canvases out into extreme relief, giving them a strong sculptural presence.

He then embellishes them with some of the aforementioned treasure, resulting in a collage-like effect. With very little exception, the work is monochromatic, but it revels in texture, form and shape, making it quite engaging.

For example, a piece titled Boxed Rotation features three empty turtle shells, vertibrae clearly visible, moving vertically along an extremely narrow, tall composition. It is a gesture that is at once disturbing and empathetic: Frozen in time, slowly rotating, the round-backed turtle is no more, but we feel its stolid presence.

A much larger piece, Harvester, consists of three large vertical canvases grouped side-by-side to create a horizontal composition. The central panel, punctuated by a large, round honeycomb, bears a huge, sagging shape like a stomach and breasts. Its mates both feature delicate birds’ nests; one has stretched and spiraled snakeskin patterned onto it, while the other is slashed with a vaginalike opening from which red puffs emerge (providing the only note of color in the room).

As a paean to fecundity, Harvester is totally up-front, but it also maintains a subtlety and tenderness that rescues it from the realm of the bombastic.

Less subtle by design is the show’s centerpiece. Equilibrium (Time, Process, Force, Decay), hits you from across the room as you enter, looking something like an impact crater spread across seven diminishing canvases, the outer panels of which bear strange hanging blobs connected by ropes to the room’s central column. Its title suggests nuclear war; even without the title, one feels overwhelmed by the piece.

Other work in the show ventures into the whimsical, the understated and the overambitious. A piece titled Mechanimal I incorporates disparate images that never really pull together, but there are some great ideas in it (an improbably functional TV hangs upside-down to project a fuzzy image of a lunar cycle off the dark surface of liquid standing in a bucket), and it activates the space by allowing viewers to walk right under it.

A very small piece titled Swell accomplishes much by way of a minimal composition and a few random cracks in its surface; nearby, 17 haunts by utilizing numerous abandoned cicada casings and sewn crosshatched twine counting the 17 years of their imprisonment.

Tying it all together is the ceiling-hung Cicada/Data (Rainforest), a constellation of suspended buckets with speakers inside, from which comes the soothing summer sound of chirping. It is calm, it is peaceful—it tells you that everything is really all right in the world. Or does it? Perhaps Martonis is trying to warn us not to relax, not to succumb to the temptation to cover our heads with a bucket and pretend it’s all OK.

But do we have a choice? As the work in this installation attests, in life there are cycles, there is the passage of time, there is growth and beauty—and death. For Martonis, it’s all part of the process. He wraps his arms around it, and squeezes tight.