A new exhibition of works by two Creighton University fine arts alumni—Antonio Jacob Martinez and Tupac Martir—recently opened at the Lied Art Gallery on August 29. It is described as multidisciplinary, but it is best understood as a study in contrasts by artists who use light and shadow as their principle media.
Photography, it is said, is the art of fixing shadows. Although there are fewer practitioners of traditional darkroom arts of capturing light on chemically sensitive glass plates or negative film, those who use a digital camera still make use of the same two-step process: snap a picture now, figure out how to take advantage of it later. We don’t as much see the work of its taking as we do the result of its making.
If photography arrests time and holds it captive for our consideration, theater is another matter. It typically embraces a storytelling structure that is made more interesting, artistic or profound by the strategic deployment of light, movement, sound, etc. Like photography, it has a capacity to transfix, but takes place in space and time, holding the audience captive for the span of its attention, hopefully to the end of the program.
The first room of the gallery is devoted to the photographs of Martinez (BFA 2001) whose 23 hand-altered and varnished pigment prints present balletic images of cage fighters caught in the clenches. How to Hug and Other Sublimations of Men, the title of this suite, is described by the artist as “an expressionistic interpretation of the modern sport of mixed martial arts…with emphasis on the hidden merging of violence and intimacy between two men, competing to win the hearts of those in the audience.”
Martinez was fascinated by the violence and physicality of the sport and curious about those men of all ages who choose to fight to the finish as a leisure-time activity. Over the course of three years, this Southern Illinois University professor trained and took part in mixed martial arts contests, also fixing his lens on other matches.
Like the ancient sport of wrestling that forms the basis for the few-holds-barred competitions of cage fighting, Martinez’s photographs have a strong sense of timelessness. He enhances the dramatic moments on the mat by using a variety of editing techniques, including obscuring and darkening backgrounds, enhancing the color of the fighters’ gloves and trunks, and sculpting the light playing on their bodies.
Martinez also adds a layer of white-toned varnish, then scratches and scrapes the surfaces of his prints, likening it to the abuse heaped on the body during matches. The resulting photographs feel frozen in time, easily passing for an old lithograph of George Bellows’ 1909 classic Stag at Sharkey’s or a hand-colored press photo of some epic prizefight. Though coincidental, it doesn’t go unnoticed that the octagonal shape of the gallery echoes that of the MMA fighting ring.
And in the other corner…gallery is a site-specific installation by Tupac Martir (BFA 2000). While at Creighton, Martir was a painting and photography major, but since then has seen his international, star-studded career encompass lighting/projection, sound design, music composition, choreography and a host of other interests he continues to weave into his expansive portfolio of productions.
Unique, the name of the installation requires audience immersion into a nearly blacked-out space, illuminated only by a changing show of patterns projected on the wall. The patterns—and there are dozens of different shapes, symbols and glyphic designs—are cut into two black scrims tucked into a corner, behind which are lights on motorized tracks whose programmed motion continually changes the shadow play on the wall.
The projected designs also reveal text adhered to the walls. “I am and you are unique,” proclaims the first. “The future is the birth of others.” “The present is the presence of others.” “The past is the absence of others.” As an artist who works collaboratively with others across disciplines, Martir has said he prefers that his work begin conversations; Unique does seem to provide some starters remarks on the very topical discourse on “otherness.”
The installation also features an amplified field of sound. An electronic mixed tape of sorts adds its own rhythm to the visual motion and helps to dull the clanky whirring of the mechanisms that move the light tracks. While there is clearly no interest by Martir in hiding his stagecraft, the noisy machinery is a distraction from the already abundant sensations of visual puppetry, sonic tapestry and narrative construct.
Distinctly different as Martinez’s and Martir’s concepts and works are, the pairing nonetheless works reasonably well. Each in his own way shines a light on a fascination for the theater of perception and the nature of human experience by allowing a bigger picture to emerge from the shadows.
The Alumni Exhibition of Antonio Martinez and Tupac Martir continues through October 16 at the Lied Art Gallery at 24th and California Streets. The exhibition will be closed for the University’s fall break, Oct. 8-11. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 11 am to 1 pm and 5 to 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 pm.