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The collector: Laudelina Martinez in her gallery

Culture Connection
By Ann Morrow
photos by John Whipple

Thanks to its passionate owner, Troy’s Martinez Gallery has carved out a niche—and thrived—selling Latino art

audelina Martinez is gear ing up for an April show featuring painters, sculptors, and photographers. Asked the name of the show, the ebullient owner of Troy’s Martinez Gallery says, “It’s Art That I Like.” She’s joking—the show will be called Crossroads, with an additional exhibition in the back titled Once Upon a Time . . . —and she’s not. Every show, indeed, every work in the gallery, is art that she likes. And the art that Martinez especially likes is Latino art.

In the back of the gallery, three paintings blaze with brilliant colors and narrative vibrancy. They’re by German Perez, a painter from the Dominican Republic who is exhibited internationally in countless galleries and museums. “He’s been called the Chagall of the Caribbean,” says Martinez. “He’s sold to a lot of celebrities, to Baryshnikov, to Alain Ducasse, the great chef, to Gloria Estefan and her husband. German is included in exhibitions that have incredible names, like Matisse and Picasso and Miro.”

Which leads to the question, what brought the works of a rising star like Perez to the walls of a small gallery in Troy? And the answer is: Laudelina Martinez. “I met him at an opening in New York City, where he lives, and we started chatting,” she says. “We discovered we have things in common.” Enough in common that Perez allowed her the enviable liberty of visiting his studio and selecting the works she wanted to sell in Troy.

Martinez admits that their shared Hispanic background was helpful in establishing the connection, and that Perez wanted to support Martinez Gallery because of its emphasis on Latino art. “Not only did he want to support it, he’s very proud of it,” she says. “He attended the opening of his show here three years ago. Among other artists, he’s given me a certain level of credibility. Artists whom I haven’t known call me and tell me, ‘German talks about you all the time.’ ”

It’s likely that Martinez’ personal enthusiasm was also a factor in Perez’ ongoing relationship with her gallery, which currently carries works painted specifically for it. “His work has this incredible fusion of African-Caribbean and contemporary Western art,” she says excitedly. “He deals with symbolic, almost surrealistic images, and there’s a kind of joyfulness to it. The colors are incredible.” She continues without pause, “I also love the way that one can look behind the colors and see a kind of allegory.”

Martinez bagged an even bigger name—Mexican-American photographer Kathy Vargas—with a simple phone call. After seeing her 25-year retrospective, Martinez says, “I called her, and we chatted, and she was terrific. There are some artists you meet who are not interesting people, and there are other artists who are terrific people and you want them to be your friend, and she’s like that.”

Pointing to a photograph of a vintage highchair set against a background of textured roses, Martinez describes what she likes best about Vargas’ work: “It’s not digitized, it’s all done in the darkroom. She mixes images and hand-paints them, she’s very painterly. And she uses a lot of Mexican-American iconography.”

But isn’t Martinez Gallery a little, ahem, out-of-the-way for an artist of Vargas’ stature? “Absolutely!” Martinez says. “She is major, major. Her work is in about 19 museums worldwide. But what she told me is that she doesn’t want to be showing in so many places anymore. So she scaled back to only three galleries, a gallery in San Francisco, a gallery in San Antonio, and this gallery. I think she did it because she wants to encourage a gallery that will work with Latino artists, and bring Latino artists to a non-Latino audience. I think she really believes in that.”

Works by German Perez at the Martinez Gallery.

Martinez also likes non-Latino artists, some of them from the area, including Gay Malin, George Hofmann, and Dan Mehlman. “Dan’s work as a commercial designer is very high-end,” says Martinez. “Steuben’s most popular piece is from his design. But I like him because . . . I like him. His linoprints are based on his everyday life, and he has a wry sense of humor. He’s also a great craftsman.

“I don’t go looking for the non-Latino artists, they come to me,” she adds. “And if they meet my expectations, then I’ll show them. I do go looking for Latino artists.”

Asked if she likes to see elements that are recognizably Hispanic in the art that she carries, she answers thoughtfully, “Except I don’t know what is recognizably Hispanic. If you try to say a Hispanic paints this way, or sculpts this way, you find examples of others who do not do things this way. Like the stereotype of bright colors, there are people who have intense dark colors, or washed-out colors. So I don’t know if I put ‘Latino’ first, and ‘I like’ second. I know I respond to a lot of Latino artists, but I don’t think if I’m responding just because they are Latino. I connect with something in their art, so obviously there must be something in my culture, something I feel excited about. But it’s all at the subconscious level.”

Opened in April 2001, Mar- tinez Gallery is the culmination of the many years Martinez spent as a passionate art collector and art educator. Born in Puerto Rico, she moved to New York state to attend college in New Rochelle. “When I was in college I began collecting folk art, and African art,” she says. “I had all kinds of African woodwork and figurines. Some of my friends in art were doing woodblocks, and they would give me stuff. That’s how I began collecting, and it became more and more intense later.”

Having worked in education administration for most of her career, Martinez moved to the Capital Region in 1994, and currently teaches a literature course at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It was the time she spent as an administrator in San Antonio in the 1980s, she says, that intensified her interest in Latino art: “I always liked Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,” and during visits to an uncle in Mexico, she began collecting Mexican art.

“But in San Antonio I got to know Latinos in a way that I hadn’t before,” she explains. “I’d been in an environment where it was mostly others, and I was one of one or two minority females. In San Antonio, I was bombarded by this variety of Latinos, and I got to know a lot about Mexican-Americans, and the differences between those in California, and those in Texas, and those in New Mexico, all of this. It was an incredible education. And of course, I would visit the galleries.”

When Martinez decided to make her longtime dream come true and open her own gallery, she returned to San Antonio and came back with seven artists, who in turn told her about other artists. “Being in Troy was not a problem,” she says. “I got all the artists I wanted.”

But why would a sophisticated collector—Martinez has worked and consulted for the prestigious El Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile in New York City—decide to open a gallery in Troy? “I didn’t want to be in New York City, I had to have staying power,” she says. “I would not have a long stay in New York, you have to be capitalized for millions of dollars. I’m happy in Troy. It’s a real city. It’s a walkable city, with neighborhoods. And of course, it has such incredible architecture. I like the fact that there are antiques stores here. Just like having good eating places is great.” Martinez especially likes her location in the Cannon Building on Broadway. “It has big windows, and the Arts Center is across the street. I thought that was terrific.”

Martinez says that her decision to have a Latino-oriented gallery was not necessarily an aesthetic one. “I didn’t want to do local artists because there were already all of these galleries doing local art,” she says. “I didn’t want to do 19th-century art, or even mid-20th century art—I wanted to show what people are doing right this minute. And I thought I would probably have more of an opportunity to connect with artists who are Latino, rather than [for example] artists who are the guardians of the Chelsea galleries. I thought about it in a deliberate, strategic way, that nobody is doing anything like this here.

“And there is still a lot of value in Latino art,” she adds. “You can still have someone like Kathy Vargas for under $1,000. You can’t have any other photographer of her caliber for less than $15,000 or $20,000 in New York City.”

Although Martinez gravitates toward unconventional art—“I like strong work that doesn’t follow a particular school,” she says. “I just want to see someone breaking away”—she also adds that she doesn’t deal in groundbreaking art. “I only take people who are very well established. I’m not in the emerging-artist business. I don’t want to have to discuss whether someone is a good artist or not. I want that to be a given.”

Martinez did make an exception for one young unknown, Cruz Ortiz from San Antonio. “When I met Cruz, he was still under the radar, but the minute I saw his work, I said, ‘He’s going places, I have to have him’,” she says. “He’s doing what’s called Chicano painting. He is very much on the ascendancy; there are lots of people, especially well-known artists in Hollywood, who are very interested in Chicano art.

“He just started doing prints because he wanted people to be able to afford his work,” she continues. Standing in front of a graphic print of one of Ortiz’ witty “Spaztecs” (an Aztec spaceman), she enthuses, “$150.00! Framed!”

Still, Troy isn’t exactly a hotbed of Hispanic culture, and though it’s certainly an artsy city, nobody is predicting that it’s going to be the next Miami in terms of art trends. But Martinez is unfazed by demographics. “I knew that the Latinos in this area were not going to be my major buyers,” she says. “But it’s been great. I have people who come from Saratoga, Delmar, Columbia County.” She is also working on expanding the gallery’s customer base. “This might be the only Latino gallery between here and New York City,” she notes. “And there are not even that many in New York that specialize in Latino [art].”

And why wouldn’t an East Coast art collector travel to Troy instead of to San Antonio or Los Angeles? Martinez has one good reason why they should: “You are not going to find in any other place this caliber and this range of artists,” she says. “They’re from all over the States and from all over Latin America. This is like one-stop shopping.” And such a bargain, to boot: “Gay Malin’s work sells between $7,000 and $10,000 in New York City,” notes Martinez. “She has a gallery in Soho. Gay Malin’s work sells for half that here.”

Besides, Martinez Gallery has already beaten the odds. “The year that I opened up the gallery, four or five other galleries also opened in the area,” she says. “A local art critic thought that I would be the first to close, because there would be very few people interested in seeing Latino art. And then he was surprised, because within a couple of years, all the other ones had closed, and I was still going on. And doing well.”

There is, however, just one thing that Martinez doesn’t like about owning Martinez Gallery: “When you are a gallerist,” she says cheerfully, “you can’t buy art for yourself.

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