New York City
JV Martin: Something rotten in the state of everything everywhere
May 20 – July 9, 2022
In March 1965, a bomb tore through the apartment of JV Martin, painter, provocateur and leader of the Scandinavian section 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 down his entire flat and destroyed most of his work and archives up to that time, including his “Thermonuclear Map” paintings – heavily laden canvases documenting the landscape in the hours following a nuclear Armageddon, their savagery evident in a list of materials that included layers and bits of rotten cheese. The bombing made local headlines at the time, but did little to deter Martin from his role in the increasingly adversarial countercultural movement, which would culminate several years later with the uprisings of 1968. He remained in the IS until its dissolution by Guy Debord in 1972, and claimed to be a situationist until he got drunk to death in 1993. He also continued, in the dark port town of Randers, to paint.
Martin is one of those characters for whom darkness is both a great injustice, and completely understandable. Initially trained as a goldsmith, he was a prolific painter throughout his working years, leaving behind an idiosyncratic body of work that spans three decades, deftly synthesizing the dominant threads of 20th-century Scandinavian painting, from Munch to CoBrA, into something playful, abject and mature (you know, because cheese) with revolutionary potential. On that final note, he was a central figure in the SI, translating the journals of the movement, organizing exhibitions and arguing endlessly with other leaders about what Situationist art – art that could hold a mirror for the Société du Spectacle – could even be. (It actually couldn’t, they reluctantly agreed, settling on the anti-situationist term.) like his apartment. While his work has been included in several collective exhibitions around situationism, it has never been examined solely on this side of the Atlantic. That’s why this first presentation of paintings, skillfully curated by Niels Henriksen, is such a thrill.
Of the six paintings on display in this exhibit — largely an introduction, tucked away on the second floor of a Chinatown mall — the most distinctively Situationist work is a 1979 example of his ongoing “Golden Fleet.” series, which features toy battleships vying for dominance, with Martin claiming the admiral. Both playful and threatening, the painting borrows situationist tropes: the overload of the canvas; moving away from traditional materials to include found or appropriated pop cultural objects; and the inclusion of comic bubbles, in which a wry or cross-cutting commentary can both amplify the meaning of the work or divert it through diversion. Borrowed for the show’s title, Shakespeare revises itself in the era of international consumer culture: “Something is Rotten in the State of Everything, Everywhere.”
This work, as well as the showcase of SI texts in the center of the gallery, should not seal Martin’s practice as a situationist or anti-situationist enterprise. In reality, Martin’s program was much less programmatic. It was shooting from everywhere, distilling a homebrew that was both raw and energetic, angsty and exuberant. Going back through the works of Asger Jorn or Karel Appel, some of the works in the exhibition are dense with straight-out-of-the-tube linework that feels drawn or sculpted as much as it is painted, bits of poetry pulling abandoned romanticism – “the last shitty song!” sings a canvas titled The longest day / The last shitty song (The Last Shitty Song) (1964) – and tachist explosions of pigment and form. Lying with Ensor’s blood-red mouths, a scrawled skull that could easily illustrate Hamsun.
Meanwhile, a series of 1970s paintings riff on the CoBrA tropes of masks and toilet primitivism. These works, in which sperm faces swirl in a madness of crowds, feel the show’s most contemporary, predicting latter-day expressionists: Joanne Greenbaum, Eddie Martinez, Jonathan Meese, Adrienne Rubinstein, Josh Smith. Martin joked that they were diverted CoBrA paints. But diverted in what? Both situationist and anti-situationist. CoBrA and Anti-CoBrA. Cancel the schools, and all that’s left is the paint. This is perhaps why these works vibrate so much. It is a historical work, detached from history. JV Martin reveals a new cord between past and present. Pulling it feels like starting an engine.