Elizabeth Marglin

The world in his throat

In 2003 Stephen Martonis heard something unforgettable: the shrieking cacophony of a magicicada infestation, in which thousands of cicadas emerged in toto, relying on surprise and sheer numbers to render themselves invincible to predators. Martonis describes the phenomena as both deafening and relaxing, an experience of the sublime that rewarded surrender with absorption.

That quality of absorption—to be dissolved in something bigger than ourselves—is what Martonis's work asks of us.

Un et Nu, his current show, continues Martonis's exploration of a richly personal visual language. Juxtaposing the unexpected with the ubiquitous, the biomorphic with the technological, Martonis challenges our assumptions about science, mathematics, and even beauty. LCD panels and sinew, gold and rust, datum and quantum, crusty and slick, spiral and grid, cocoon and metamorphosis are pairings that suggest dislocation and redemption.

I went several times to visit Martonis in his studio, a delightful freestanding cottage tucked at the back of his garden. Silk worms, from grub to moth, had tenancy; thousands of dead cicadas awaited their close-up, and bees had come a-visiting, spurred by the scent of melting beeswax. Next to his worktable stood his daughter’s easel, and hung proudly above both were her latest works on paper. On one visit, his three-year-old daughter had just made her first drawing with a human figure, neatly paralleling the emergence of Martonis’s own self-portrait in Un et Nu. “It is an image—a portrait with something coming out of the throat—that had been with me for years in my mind, that I only now allowed to manifest in my work,” he says. “There is something almost painfully vulnerable about the throat, an area of passage, connectivity, and confluence.”

The luminous image of the throat has resonances with both cicadas, who make their noise from vibrating their tracheas, and the silkworms, who make silk by secreting a glandular fluid that hardens into a fiber upon contact with air. Un et Nu the show, whose name translates as “one and naked,” hints that stars, cicadas, silk, and self are not as disparate as they seem, but connect through patterns intuited yet unseen.

For Martonis, process forms an integral part of the work, and he embraces the repetitious, labor-intensive aspect of his creations. Groupings of cicadas, with wings weighted by glass slides to fix the span, were laid out on his table. Silkworm production entailed an incubator as well as a miniature dustbuster for the insects’ feces removal. Process becomes a private performance, a meditative communion with materials.

In Cicada Data the music of the primes plays its subtle melody (cicada infestations only emerge in prime number years). The delicacy of the cicadas’ wings, overlaid with rust or gold according to whether or not they were primes, have a hypnotic effect. The viewer becomes suspended in the mix of platonic ideal and organic nature: Numbers dissolve into form, and form into numbers. Neither is sure of the other. Meanwhile, in the sonic realm, other quirks unravel. White noise, produced from an old television set, sounds like rain, while the cicada calls sound like electronic clicks.

In Bombyx Mori, the beauty of these white, ineffable cocoons, coupled with the grublike dumbness of the worms, presents a fascinating tableau vivant. The worms toil with ceaseless vigor, consumed by their genetically predetermined lot in life. Something about their doomed (the moth must be killed so as not to discolor the cocoon) but exquisite life cycle takes hold of the viewer, leading to existential rumination.

Un et nu: Like the end of Dante’s Purgatorio, what emerges from this piece seems “perfect, pure, and ready for the stars.” The warm malleability of the baked surface, the simple completeness of the circle, the field of stars, and the stoic profile form a triptych at once grounded and transcendent. As above, so below: Martonis brings to his art a sense of restrained illumination.

The detritus of the natural world offers the portal. The show proffers surface as a way to peer deeply into the life of things, to shed the cocoon of separateness. We shore these fragments against our ruins, finding in these pieces, a place of tenuous refuge.