Lush Life: Martin Golland’s Painted World

Martin Golland: Traverse (2010): 60 x 72 inches. All works oil on canvas. Images courtesy Birch Libralato, Toronto.Martin Golland: Traverse (2010): 60 x 72 inches. All works oil on canvas. Images courtesy Birch Libralato, Toronto.

By James D. Campbell

Each of Martin Golland’s recent paintings is a reliquary box, a philatory, a monstrance. To those who have looked hard at his work, those claims won’t seem at all strange. His paintings have built-in hallucinatory content that acts as a snare trap or constructed nest for the optic. This iconographic content pulls us in with all the hypnotic, incantatory power of prayer – or a saint’s remains.

A reliquary is, as its name implies, a container for relics. These include the physical remains of saints, including bones, pieces of clothing or some object associated with saints or other religious figures as a physical icon for veneration. Now, of course, when we think of Golland’s paintings, we don’t necessarily feel as though our heart has been touched by Christ! The experience is non-religious, but an epiphany nonetheless – and, one wild ride.

Martin Golland: Terrarium (2010): 43 x 36 inches.Martin Golland: Terrarium (2010): 43 x 36 inches.Golland, who is based in Ottawa and has twice been recognized by the prestigious RBC painting award, makes paintings that generate a sort of fluid electricity felt optically, imaginatively and, not least, viscerally. They are splayed out across the whole body sensibility. His paintings are always highly charged. There are no overt religious meanings even though some vestigial significations may remain if you are of that bent. Rather, the prospect of inhabitation is raised, and the paintings become potent projection zones, ensnaring our attention inside painting as though it was a built habitat, an imaginal dwelling place. Instead of the remnants of saints, we are offered, without restraint, all the authenticity of the artist’s own memories, the force of his desire to erect a palpable and metaphoric scaffolding for them and, of course, alluring housing for some very consequential painting ideas.

If I liken his paintings to a reliquary, a philatory – a transparent reliquary designed to contain and exhibit the bones and relics of saints – or a monstrance, in which the relic inside is seen through a viewing portal, it is because they seem wholly energised from within. They exert a magnetic pull on the somatic and the imaginal life of the viewer, simultaneously.

Instead of, say, Pope Alexander I's skull housed in a head-shaped reliquary box, we have paintings that look like they have undergone a successful trepanning op (or are prepping us for one). As a result, Golland’s paintings transform into something new and strange. It is not the bones of saints that recall the shape of the original body part – an arm or a foot – but the shapes of memory itself, which take on sundry appendages in the seeing, and warp our well-ordered reality.

Our memories are grafted somehow onto Golland’s own. We think of his paintings as habitats and transformative haunts at the same time. The extravagant insides of his paintings assume the form of glutted urban centres, deliquescing before our eyes in talismanic excess. Both their inhabitants and we, the viewers, are proverbial grist for the mill.

It is because Golland’s paintings are so significantly charged that I will carry this analogy a little further. I’ve seen many reliquaries from Central West Africa, such as those used in Kongo and Vili witchcraft rituals, which are considered magical and often contain the bones of ancestors. Golland uses paint as a means of inducing disorientation, keeping the viewer off-balance, held taut between memory and desire, inside and outside, reverie and dread. His paintings are a special medicine for the optic.

“My painting uses the subject of architecture-based spaces to evoke the sensation of disorientation,” says Golland of his work. “Transitory scenes created in paint refer to the fractured phenomenon of perception. My intent is to blur the transition between the imagined and the real, to reveal strangeness within everyday experience, and to encourage the mind's sway between reverie and dread.”

“Between reveries and dread” – it’s nicely phrased and locates the twilight zone where his paintings take us: onto the threshold of the unknown, the cusp of the unknowable, where there is no sure footing, and all is suspended and yet in flux. Through this destabilization, Golland makes us look closely, and then more closely still. He wants to waylay us within his paintings.

Dark City (1998): Film still.Dark City (1998): Film still.He begins with an archive of collages, drawings and photographs, which he uses to rough out his scaffolding and surrounds. When painting, he draws out a phenomenal tension between the representational imagery, and the physical stuff of paint and his multiple stratagems of application. The “above” and the “below” of his painting world are inverted and smudged, distinctions are blurred, and a prevailing ambiguity is born. It is as though he is building a “dark city” all his own. (Dark City, a visionary 1998 American science fiction film directed by Alex Proyas, depicts a solipsist’s wet dream of a city where human inhabitants never see the sun, and their lives are subjected to hallucination, induced amnesia and simulated reality.) As in the film, Golland continually deconstructs his paintings like a city being continually dismantled and built up again from within. This generates a potent sort of architectural uncanny, and one in which is impossible to pigeonhole, predict or “power off”.

In this respect, let us return for a moment to the Nkisi (plural: Minkisi), which translates literally as "sacred medicine". The term Nkisi is generic for a host of fetish objects used to house spirits and in rituals of sympathetic magic. Some are used as divination implements, for descrying, others for healing, still others for malignant ends. Some are "of the above", and some are "of the below". The former are associated with the sky, rain and thunderstorms while the latter are associated with earth and waters on land. In Golland’s numinous painting world, he mixes and matches the “above” and the “below” – upending his urban landscapes and tumultuous skies with paint as though he was a shaman driving nails into a fetish to awaken its interior spirit and capture the viewer’s gaze.

Inside his metaphoric reliquary boxes, Golland builds habitable structures out of pigment and a problematic geometry. Consider Terrarium (2009) in which the contents of the so-called ‘terrarium’ seem to be wantonly morphing in and out of painterly definition, the cubic shape materializing and disappearing, birthing gesture and being sublimated by paint. Or Bundle (2010), in which an otherworldly earthquake (say, 9.5 on the Gerhard Richter scale), is upending all orderly notions of lived space, such that the ground of the painting is akin to tectonic plates shifting beneath our feet, displacing us as we negotiate passage there.

Golland’s paintings are happy chameleons and entirely unafraid, if not carefree… unafraid not only of changing the colors and textures of their skins, but of unfolding all their internal organs for our purview. Weirdly, he is a radically anatomical painter. At the same time, he turns the full imaginal array inside out in an act of ritual disembowelment. He wields his paintbrush like a talented surgeon with a Liston knife in the operating theatre. Perhaps, this is what makes his paintings count amongst the least predictable and most restless around – they keep both “below” and “above” aloft and in transit like a gifted juggler, even while they slice the jugular of conventional painting and sop up the blood with truly vampiric gusto.

Martin Golland: Flanker (2010): 60 x 48 inches.Martin Golland: Flanker (2010): 60 x 48 inches.I have called his paintings reliquaries, and they have that dark, besotted resonance. But the title of this essay is borrowed from Joe Henderson’s Lush Life, the 1992 album that finally brought that master of the saxophone the attention he so richly deserves, and which also has a dark, besotted resonance. With its virtuoso brush handling routine and fragmented narrative arc, Golland’s painting brings Henderson’s music effortlessly to mind. Like Henderson did in a single song and throughout his songbook, Golland, too, has an almost preternatural capability to employ simultaneously various painting styles in a single painting, as well as a series.

Golland’s paintings may be akin to reliquaries, but it would be no exaggeration to suggest that they are also modal masterpieces. Modal jazz, developed in the late 1950s, takes the mode, or musical scale, as the basis of musical structure and improvisation. A soloist creates a melody using a single or limited number of modes, resulting in a shifting emphasis from harmony to melody. Classic modal jazz possesses a cerebral and contemplative flavour – think Henderson or Miles Davis – much like Golland’s paintings. Like the music, his paintings have endlessly shifting centres and a lack of formal resolution.

This brings a tension into play that keeps the work safe from taxonomy, and assures a governing ambiguity in its mien. Using a finite, but deft and expansive, set of painting strategies, Golland lifts the roof off painting, revealing something of the how and why of its interior workings. Then, he nails that roof down again, but now in some other universe, tweaking notions of human habitation, dwelling and place in the process. He builds brave inhabitable structures out of a retinue of painting techniques and a daunting inventory of formal inventions that allow him to dilate on what is still possible for painting.

These paintings strip themselves down and showcase their contents as processual manoeuvrings second to none. In so doing, they show off licks that have all the inventive power of modal jazz. They can be likened to kinetic anatomical charts, glazed reliquaries and uncanny architectural scenarios. They offer a singular haunting in the context of contemporary painting. Masterful illusionist that he is, Golland invites viewers to peer into his reliquary boxes, discover reveries and revenants therein, and witness a still-unfurling spectacle of painterly virtuosity and invention that knows few equals.

James D. CampbellJames D. Campbell is a writer on art and a curator based in Montreal. He is the author of well over 100 catalogues and books on art and artists. Upcoming and recent publications include monographs on painters Paul Bureau, Michel Daigneault and Mirana Zuger. Campbell also contributes frequently to many art magazines, including Frieze, Border Crossings, Canadian Art and others.