New York CityTif Sigfrids
J.V. Martin: Something is Rotten in the State of Everything Everywhere
May 20 – July 9, 2022
In March 1965, a bomb ripped through the apartment of J.V. Martin, painter, provocateur, and leader of the Scandinavian chapter of the Situationist International. In what was rumored to be an attack by the Danish secret service, the bomb injured Martin’s five-year-old son, burned out the entirety of his apartment, and destroyed the bulk of his work and archive up to that point, including his “Thermonuclear Map” paintings—heavily loaded canvases documenting the landscape in the hours after a nuclear Armageddon, their savagery evident in a materials list that included diapers and chunks of rotting cheese. The bombing made local headlines at the time, but did little to dissuade Martin from his role in the increasingly antagonistic countercultural movement, which would crest several years later with the 1968 uprisings. He would remain in the SI until it was disbanded by Guy Debord in 1972, and would claim to be a Situationist until he drank himself to death in 1993. He also continued, in the grim harbor town of Randers, to paint.
Martin is one of those figures for whom obscurity is both a great injustice, and quite understandable. Initially trained as a silversmith, he was a prolific painter throughout his working years, leaving behind an idiosyncratic body of work that stretches through three decades, cannily synthesizing the dominant threads of twentieth-century Scandinavian painting, from Munch to CoBrA, into something playful, abject, and ripe (you know, because cheese) with revolutionary potential. On that final note, he was a central figure in the SI, translating the movement’s journals, organizing exhibitions, and ceaselessly sparring with other leaders as to what Situationist art—an art that could hold a mirror to the Society of the Spectacle—could even be. (It actually couldn’t, they begrudgingly accepted, settling on the term Anti-Situationist.) At the same time, he failed to make any inroads into the art establishment, and spent his career in Randers, painting and rabblerousing, often as bombed as his apartment. While his work has been included in several group shows around Situationism, it has never been solely examined on this side of the Atlantic. Which is why this initial presentation of paintings, deftly curated by Niels Henriksen, is such a thrill.
Of the six paintings on display in this show—very much an introduction, tucked away on the second floor of a Chinatown Mall—the most typically Situationist work is a 1979 example of his ongoing “Golden Fleet” series, which feature toy battleships vying for dominance, with Martin claiming Admiral. Both playful and menacing, the painting borrows Situationist tropes: the overloading of the canvas; moving away from traditional materials to include found or appropriated pop-cultural objects; and the inclusion of cartoon speech balloons, in which an ironic or cross-cutting commentary can both amplify the meaning of the work, or hijack it through détournement. Borrowed for the title of the show, Shakespeare revises himself for the age of international consumer culture: “Something is Rotten in the State of Everything, Everywhere.”
This work, as well as the vitrine of SI texts in the center of the gallery, shouldn’t seal off Martin’s practice as a Situationist, or Anti-Situationist enterprise. In reality, Martin’s program was far less programmatic. He pulled from everywhere, distilling a homebrew both raw and energetic, angst-ridden and exuberant. Reaching back through the works of Asger Jorn or Karel Appel, certain works in the show are dense with straight-from-the-tube line work that feels drawn or sculpted as much as it is painted, bits of poetry pulling in a derelict Romanticism—“la dernière chanson de merde!” sings a canvas titled The Longest Day/ La Dernière chanson de merde (The Last Shitty Song) (1964)—and Tachist explosions of pigment and form. Layered with blood-red mouths of Ensor, a scrawled skull that could easily illustrate Hamsun.
Meanwhile, a series of paintings from the 1970s riff on CoBrA tropes of masks and bathroom stall primitivism. These works, in which spermatozoal faces swirl into a madness of crowds, feel the most contemporary of the show, predicting latter day Expressionists: Joanne Greenbaum, Eddie Martinez, Jonathan Meese, Adrienne Rubinstein, Josh Smith. Martin joked that they were détourned CoBrA paintings. But détourned into what? Both Situationist and Anti-Situationist. CoBrA and Anti-CoBrA. Cancel out the schools, and what remains is painting. Perhaps this is why these works vibrate so. It’s historic work, knocked loose from history. J.V. Martin reveals a new cord between past and present. Tugging on it feels like starting an engine.