Patrick Martinez's Art Is Next Level

Article originally appeared in BEYOND THE STREETS show catalog.

Patrick Martinez’s heartfelt social commentary is expressed through the very fabric of L.A., its neon signs, stucco walls, security bars, sunsets and police brutality providing raw, tactile material for a growing mixed-media tapestry — the artist’s visual document of complex times in an increasingly complex city.

Never one to sugarcoat the truth, Martinez sheds light on the realities of urban life, largely through juxtaposition. By placing the mundane side by side with the extraordinary, he endows the ordinary with meaning; by documenting the normalization of evil, he jars us from our sleep. For instance, the Pee-Chee folders of his youth, with their anodyne images of school athletics, are reimagined with images of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee or Eric Garner being choked by a police officer. The flashing neon CHECK CASHING and PAWN SHOP signs that light up poor neighborhoods in L.A. become things of poetry in Martinez’s hands, as do the ubiquitous stucco and tile of a nondescript bungalow, both menacing and beautiful when lovingly framed by Martinez, bougainvillea wrapping around its security bars, a machine gun at its center.

LANDSCAPE FOR LEASE (DIPTYCH) CERAMIC, FOUND BANNER TARP, CERAMIC TILE, MIXED MEDIA ON STUCCO AND NEON ON PANEL, 2017

LANDSCAPE FOR LEASE (DIPTYCH) CERAMIC, FOUND BANNER TARP, CERAMIC TILE, MIXED MEDIA ON STUCCO AND NEON ON PANEL, 2017 / PHOTO BY: MICHAEL UNDERWOOD, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY

Martinez was born and raised in Pasadena, in the San Gabriel Valley just north of Los Angeles. Graffiti was the gateway drug that exposed him to aspects of the city he would never have otherwise seen, instilling in him a work ethic he credits for his success today. He was 12 years old when he and his friends first started saving up their money to buy cans of spray paint, taking the bus into L.A. after school so they could paint yards.

“Looking back, graffiti taught me a lot of discipline,” says Martinez with a hint of irony, “because no one is telling you to do this stuff, and you’re working hard to produce something that no one is going to really see, unless it’s on the side of a freeway or on a train, in which case it’s still only speaking to a specific niche group of people. Kind of great preparation for the art world.”

It was 1992, and he and his brother, who was two years older, were obsessed with rap. Martinez loved the creative aspect of hip-hop culture, while his brother was more interested in the gangster side. “It was a weird time . . . my brother was in and out of jail for stealing cars. There was this group of guys who would strip the cars at my place, so the cops were raiding our house. It became really weird. Not some Boyz n the Hood shit, but a lighter version of that. I wanted to get out of that situation. It was draining.” 

CHINATOWN TILE STUDY 1 CERAMIC, MIXED MEDIA
ON CERAMIC TILE ON PANEL, 2017

CHINATOWN TILE STUDY 1 CERAMIC, MIXED MEDIA ON CERAMIC TILE ON PANEL, 2017 / PHOTO BY: MICHAEL UNDERWOOD, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY

ELA 2 CERAMIC, MIXED MEDIA
ON CERAMIC TILE ON PANEL, 2017

ELA 2 CERAMIC, MIXED MEDIA ON CERAMIC TILE ON PANEL, 2017 / PHOTO BY: MICHAEL UNDERWOOD, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY

Martinez was taking night classes in art at community college and still doing a little graffiti. “Me and my friends would take these life-painting classes, acrylic and oils, and we were better than all the other students.” By the time he was 20, he’d built up enough of a portfolio to apply to Art Center. With only a 25 percent acceptance rate, the odds were against him, but he was offered a place and found himself in art school, where he committed to mastering all the skills he would need to live a creative life. He painted scenes of police harassment and the prison system, because that is what he had experienced, through his brother and through being a graffiti artist. His work was distinct in that it offered a view of life not many of his fellow students were familiar with. “I was always painting shit that was about something,” he says. “It was obvious I wasn’t interested in making art for decoration; I was making art with a message, I guess.” Graffiti had always appealed to Martinez for its disruptive elements, and perhaps he was searching for the same thing in his studio. “I was asking myself, ‘What are you not supposed to put in a painting?’”

He paid his bills by doing graphic design and logo work for Mister Cartoon and Estevan Oriol’s Joker Brand while developing his fine-art practice, noticing that his greatest inspirations seemed to be drawn from the ordinary, workaday details of the city around him — its food (still-life paintings of Cheetos, 40 oz. beers and GMO comestibles), its street furniture, its grubby walls.

The neon work developed around 2008, when he was living in East L.A. “I would drive down Whittier Boulevard at night, when all the businesses were closed, and the streets were desolate, but the neon lights would be on. Check cashing. Bail bonds. Psychics. This text was so direct, it felt like it was speaking to me, like this was a dialogue. I imagined how cool it would be if they were actually saying something. So I started remixing the messages in the square — poetry, ideas, rap lyrics.”

LEFT: PROTEST PEE CHEE ACRYLIC ON PANEL, 2017
RIGHT: FLOWER MEMORIAL PEE CHEE ACRYLIC, BIC PEN AND STICKER COLLAGE ON PANEL, 2017

LEFT: PROTEST PEE CHEE ACRYLIC ON PANEL, 2017 RIGHT: FLOWER MEMORIAL PEE CHEE ACRYLIC, BIC PEN AND STICKER COLLAGE ON PANEL, 2017 / PHOTO BY: MICHAEL UNDERWOOD, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY

School stationery became an unlikely part of Martinez’s toolbox around 2015. It was the ubiquity of phone cameras that inspired the Pee-Chee folder project, as scenes of police brutality in America were being documented en masse and shared on the Internet. He started telling stories of Eric Garner and Walter Scott through his work, painting scenes of real-life police murders and minority resistance onto folder designs that were popular in high schools in the late 20th century. He’s done 22 versions of the Pee-Chee folders so far, and he imagines he’ll continue as long as the incidents continue.

“A lot of the work I do, no matter what medium it is, is driven by a need to document. I feel like I’m preserving these incidents and their truth by turning them into art. Otherwise, it’s all disposable, and the stories are gone as soon as the next big news event happens. Art is my way of keeping the conversation alive — transporting it to the museums too — and maybe making sense of it all, over time.”

* Banner Image: LOS ANGELES LANDSCAPE 2 (LINCOLN HEIGHTS TO VENICE) CERAMIC, FOUND BANNER TARP, CERAMIC TILE, MIXED MEDIA ON STUCCO AND NEON ON PANEL, 2017 / PHOTOS BY: MICHAEL UNDERWOOD, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY