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Painting (MA)

Graham Martin

Graham Martin (b.1983, Ayr, Scotland) lives and works in London. He studied at Edinburgh College of Art (2001-2003), Edinburgh University (2003-2007) and Université Paris II - Panthéon-Assas (2009-2010).

He is a 2020 recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant and his work has been part of group shows including the John Moores Painting Prize (Walker Museum, Liverpool), John Ruskin Prize (New Art Gallery, Walsall and Trinity Buoy Wharf, London), RBA Rising Stars (Royal Over-Seas League, London), The Columbia Threadneedle Prize (Mall Galleries, London and Palazzo Strozzi, Florence), and The RSA Open (Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh). 

In 2018, he joined the board of trustees of Kingsgate Workshops and Project Space, and this year he launched Trafalgar Avenue with his partner Carlos Silveria - a new artist-led gallery and project space in South East London.

My work typically responds in some way to the built environment. I'm drawn to ruins, derelict structures and abandoned places, objects and ephemera that bear traces of earlier incarnations, a sort of index of another period in time. 

In this recent body of work, I began exploring notions of queer time and space - ideas informed by Jack Halberstam’s writing on queer temporality and José Esteban Muñoz’ case for stepping outside the linearity of straight time to find utopia in the present. 

My point of departure was the writing of David Wojnarowicz and photography of Peter Hujar and Alvin Baltrop, responding initially to their depictions of cruising the ruined warehouses on New York's abandoned waterfront in the late 70s and early 80s. Within that space, I consider parallels with cruising culture in the UK, its importance historically, and relevance today. 

In Cruising the Dead River, Fiona Anderson writes that time itself was in ruins on the waterfront, and 'for Wojnarowicz, the material decay of the piers and their queer erotic appropriations also suggested the possibility of temporal overlap' where past and present coalesce in the ruinous buildings. With time in ruins, I wondered whether through fissures or portals in the temporal and physical fabric of the built environment, I could access the collective force of a community that was obscured by the onslaught of AIDS. 

Halberstam suggests that queerness has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space. With that in mind, I wanted to revisit those histories written in the margins and reframe personal experiences in the shadows as a way of deconstructing oppressive narratives we have grown up with and internalised, narratives that have become so deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious. By collapsing the conventional linear understanding of time in this way, I wondered whether I could feel those distant presences, happenings, and people more intimately, through what Muñoz describes as ‘the performance of queer utopian memory'. 

Three Portals — Acrylic and image transfer on canvas with brass hinges (260 x 160cm)
Three Portals (detail)
A Portal (i), (ii), (iii) — Image transfer on found warehouse sink fragments ((i) 23 x 28 x 19cm, (ii) 20 x 47 x 23cm, (iii) 18 x 34 x 10cm respectively)
A Portal (ii) — Image transfer on found warehouse sink fragment (20 x 47 x 23cm)
Otherside — Acrylic and oil on canvas (160 x 200cm)
Otherside study — Laser copy collage, acrylic and ink on paper (30 x 42cm)

During recurring periods of lockdown I embraced a more phenomenological approach to making, drawing upon the research that underpinned much of my dissertation, whilst exploring and tracing connections in my immediate surroundings – an abandoned packing warehouse opposite the studio in East London, not dissimilar I imagined to those described by Wojnarowicz in Close to the Knives and The Waterfront Journals

Muñoz argues that “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world”. This body of work began almost by chance as a series of performances or rituals that I documented in the space, a kind of thought experiment, drawing on that idea of potentiality. 

Harold Offeh informed my thinking around this methodology. Through performance, he explains, we are able to place ourselves in specific contexts to explore connections to certain places and cultures and by placing ourselves at the centre of the work we are also able to control the narrative. 

Keep Clear — Image transfer on found vinyl warehouse tiles x 9 (each 30 x 30cm)
Looking — Acrylic, charcoal, and image transfer on canvas with enamel sign and brass and steel hardware (60 x 80 x 10cm)
Socks — Image transfer on found warehouse tiles mounted on ply panel (90 x 90 cm)
Socks (installation views)

Exploring the relationship between the body and the fabric of the building, I began thinking about literal interpretations of the idea that architecture and the built environment retain traces of time and lived experiences.

Conceptually I was still thinking about the portal and how this might be activated, and formally, thinking about where the figure is situated in the space, how he is positioned as regards the viewer.

I was also interested in the way the degraded layered photographic image could conflate or suggest slippage between the body and the architecture or allude to the spectre of a recently absented presence.

An Encounter — Acrylic, oil and image transfer on canvas with brass hinges (250 x 160cm)
Pillar — Graphite on Fabriano 200gsm with cast iron down pipe section (165 x 415cm)
An Encounter II — Monoprint on Japanese Hosho 50gsm (75 x 120cm) and image transfer on found mirror mounted on ply panel (50 x 105cm)

The diagrammatic and the indexical are threads that run through much of my recent work. The diagrammatic in terms of the mathematical perspectives that describe architectural space and the indexical in terms of the materiality of the space. And I’ve become increasingly interested in the tactile almost ritualistic processes involved in this approach to making. 

Pillar is an example of this direct index of the built environment. I made a number of these large-scale rubbings in another series and found myself responding to the immediacy of that process and the physicality in handling the paper at this scale. I also became aware of the parallels between this process, the image transfer process and other printmaking processes. 

In An Encounter II, I was interested in the dialogue between the separate elements of the work, which whilst similar in form and scale are very different materially. As with Pillar, which bends down off the wall and extends across the floor, I was also thinking about how to disrupt a straightforward understanding of the physical space.

C & the Garden of Earthly Delights — Acrylic and oil on canvas and image transfer on found ply hoarding with brass hardware (125 x 160 x 10cm closed)
C & the Garden of Earthly Delights (installation view) — Acrylic and oil on canvas and image transfer on found ply hoarding with brass hardware and palisade and brass butterfly stool (340 x 160 x 140cm)
C & the Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)
C & the Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)

C & the Garden of Earthly Delights was originally conceived as a wall hanging triptych where the outer panels could close and be opened to reveal a painting within, but it evolved to become a freestanding five panel work – a sort of architectural intervention. 

I’m interested in the seam or gap which occurs between the panels and engineered the altarpiece-type structure, paying great attention to the spacing and the way the hinges come together. The panels open to reveal the image of a tree situated in an opening in the woodland in Hampstead Heath - the Fuck Tree, itself a site of ritual. 

I wanted to challenge historical heteronormative narratives around certain aspects of queer culture. But I'm conscious that parts of the gay experience are more intimate and personal and should be reserved as such, so felt that the enclosed painting, like its subject, should perhaps only be accessible by invitation.

Penny For Your Thoughts — Brass coin-operated public toilet door lock (14 x 39 x 9cm)

Penny For Your Thoughts is a brass coin-operated public toilet door lock, that would have been used in public toilets across the UK until the early 1970s when the cost to ‘spend a penny’ increased to two pence.

For me, it’s loaded in meaning in its relation to cottaging culture in the UK. Whilst cruising took place on New York’s abandoned waterfront, urban cruising culture in the UK began in the public parks and public toilets (‘cottages’). This was a result of the homophobic legislation and societal attitudes that persisted in the persecution of gay men in the UK throughout the 20th century but became a fundamental and celebrated part of gay culture.

When I acquired the lock, the mechanism was jammed with two coins, one dated 1938 and the other 1967, which struck a chord. 1967 was the year that homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK, with full decriminalisation only being achieved in the last decade. It also signified that the lock was in use during that period.

I want to use the lock to talk about the history of the legislation that criminalised sexual activity between men as a means for it to remain part of our collective consciousness and so that its ongoing impact is understood. It would be more of a chat than something performative, so we would sit down with the lock and I’d give you a coin, dated 1967, and tell you a bit about the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and the circumstances in which it came into force. Then I would give you another coin, this one much older, dated 1885, and tell you about the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which was amended by the 1967 law, and which itself came into force to amend an earlier law in order to facilitate the prosecution gay men (Oscar Wild and Alan Turing were both convicted under this earlier law for acts of gross indecency).

There is something about holding the coins that I think allows us to understand in a tangible way the time periods we’re discussing and also to acknowledge how recent 1967 is in terms of our collective social history - it feels like the coin on the left could easily be in circulation today. 

As much as the lock is a beautiful object in and of itself, I want it to serve as a point of departure for discussion - a concept that borrows from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.

For the Importuners — Letterpress edition, Caligo relief ink on Japanese Hosho Paper 100gsm, each inscribed with UV sensitive security ink (19.5 x 28cm)
For the Importuners (installation view at Trafalgar Avenue)
For the Importuners (UV light view)

For The importuners broaches a number of themes that I have been thinking about over the last year. It depicts an architectural plan for a public toilet - the urinal, sinks and W.C.s each intricately demarcated. 

In 2017, the Alan Turing Law was passed to pardon men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that criminalised homosexual acts. Although welcome and long overdue, the law is problematic for a number of reasons, particularly as regards crimes which specifically targeted gay men and led to thousands of cautions and convictions yet to which the amnesty does not extend. The crime of importuning is the most notable example. 

This edition is for the Importuners.

The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation