Peace of Nature
By David Brickman
Trash: New Works by Stephen V. Martonis
Center Galleries, through April 4
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “country
trash,” I picture rusting farm equipment, pickup trucks up
on blocks, and maybe a few of the sort of unfortunate humans
who are apt to hang around such wreckage. But the tongue-in-cheek
title of a full-gallery installation by Stephen V. Martonis
at Albany Center Galleries masks the truth that Country
Trash is in fact a shameless celebration of nature.
Admittedly, there are a few items in the show (such as rusted
zinc buckets, bits of barbed wire, the guts of a TV) that
might belong in a dumpster—but the real trash (i.e. treasure)
consists of items lovingly culled from the woods and fields
of rural New York: seed pods, cocoons, cicada casings, birds’
and bees’ nests, deer bones, abandoned snakeskins and so on.
Martonis is essentially a painter-turned-sculptor, and his
creations largely tread the line between two and three dimensions.
For this show he designed large and small wall-hung pieces,
quirky combines, and a delicate soundtrack, all of it revolving
around the gallery’s central column so as to embrace, rather
than deny, its imposition on the space.
His primary medium, he will tell you, is bread dough. Over
nine years of experimenting with the gooey stuff, Martonis
claims to have perfected a formula that is stable when dry.
He builds extremely heavy-duty stretchers, covers them with
burlap, and works the dough into the cloth, whereupon it shrinks,
cracks and hardens into the biomorphic shapes the artist has
The dough also takes on a golden-brown color, which Martonis
embellishes with tar to create a look akin to bronze—or scorched
earth, depending on your point of view. Using various forms,
including balls, balloons, boxes, cloth, rope and whatever
else comes to hand, Martonis builds these canvases out into
extreme relief, giving them a strong sculptural presence.
He then embellishes them with some of the aforementioned treasure,
resulting in a collage-like effect. With very little exception,
the work is monochromatic, but it revels in texture, form
and shape, making it quite engaging.
For example, a piece titled Boxed Rotation features
three empty turtle shells, vertibrae clearly visible, moving
vertically along an extremely narrow, tall composition. It
is a gesture that is at once disturbing and empathetic: Frozen
in time, slowly rotating, the round-backed turtle is no more,
but we feel its stolid presence.
A much larger piece, Harvester, consists of three large
vertical canvases grouped side-by-side to create a horizontal
composition. The central panel, punctuated by a large, round
honeycomb, bears a huge, sagging shape like a stomach and
breasts. Its mates both feature delicate birds’ nests; one
has stretched and spiraled snakeskin patterned onto it, while
the other is slashed with a vaginalike opening from which
red puffs emerge (providing the only note of color in the
As a paean to fecundity, Harvester is totally up-front,
but it also maintains a subtlety and tenderness that rescues
it from the realm of the bombastic.
Less subtle by design is the show’s centerpiece. Equilibrium
(Time, Process, Force, Decay), hits you from across the
room as you enter, looking something like an impact crater
spread across seven diminishing canvases, the outer panels
of which bear strange hanging blobs connected by ropes to
the room’s central column. Its title suggests nuclear war;
even without the title, one feels overwhelmed by the piece.
Other work in the show ventures into the whimsical, the understated
and the overambitious. A piece titled Mechanimal I
incorporates disparate images that never really pull together,
but there are some great ideas in it (an improbably functional
TV hangs upside-down to project a fuzzy image of a lunar cycle
off the dark surface of liquid standing in a bucket), and
it activates the space by allowing viewers to walk right under
A very small piece titled Swell accomplishes much by
way of a minimal composition and a few random cracks in its
surface; nearby, 17 haunts by utilizing numerous abandoned
cicada casings and sewn crosshatched twine counting the 17
years of their imprisonment.
Tying it all together is the ceiling-hung Cicada/Data (Rainforest),
a constellation of suspended buckets with speakers inside,
from which comes the soothing summer sound of chirping. It
is calm, it is peaceful—it tells you that everything is really
all right in the world. Or does it? Perhaps Martonis is trying
to warn us not to relax, not to succumb to the temptation
to cover our heads with a bucket and pretend it’s all OK.
But do we have a choice? As the work in this installation
attests, in life there are cycles, there is the passage of
time, there is growth and beauty—and death. For Martonis,
it’s all part of the process. He wraps his arms around it,
and squeezes tight.
An interview of artist Stephen V. Martonis by Times Union
art critic Timothy Cahill will be held at 7 PM on Tuesday
( March 11) at Albany Center Galleries.