Jel Martinez

New Takes

Jel Martinez

By Jamee Crusan November 21, 2017

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

Walls defend, walls support, walls retain. Walls that are structurally sound offer support and sturdiness. However, walls also separate. There are fire walls, brick walls, stone walls, and emotional and physical walls. In any of these cases, walls act as witnesses of memories, of past conversations, lives, experiences, and histories. Walls in many instances are unmovable, but they can be broken down or broken through.

Jel Martinez re-creates graffiti-laden street walls in his large paintings, using a process that questions and reenacts acts of erasure. The Miami, Florida-based artist transforms canvas into “cement walls” found on city streets, complete with rust stains and moss, before he lays down his graffiti. His final step is to erase or remove the graffiti using specific methods utilized by city workers on public and private buildings, includes methods identified as symmetrical, ghosting, and radical. As highlighted in Matt McCormick's documentary The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2001), “symmetrical” includes an identifiable geometric order of squares and rectangles, “ghosting” occurs when the remover follows the lines of the graffiti, and “radical” is when the remover does not use geometric shapes or lines from the graffiti as a method of removal.

Jel Martinez. Urban Abstraction, 2014; mixed media on canvas; 96 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist. 

In Urban Abstraction (2014), Martinez uses symmetrical marks of removal as an attempt to efface the graffiti. The cement canvas is textured with muted colors of whites, browns, blacks, and pinks. Geometric shapes of light pink paint that look clumsily rolled onto the canvas reference the marks made by a city worker trying to cover the graffiti, but the thin paint cannot fully cover the spray-painted black graffiti marks underneath. The letters struggle to be seen; the red lines are blurred and made illegible, rendering the language or the words even harder to decipher. The canvas is covered with fields of color, abstract forms, and gestural marks, like splatters. In these specific painterly choices, Martinez directly engages with conversations surrounding abstract expressionism—most significantly, the histories of action and color-field painting.

Abstract expressionism, as well as minimalism, has been dominated by white men who overshadowed artists of color and other genders. The minimalist shape of the square links to many white male artists (from American color-field painter Mark Rothko to American minimalist sculptors Donald Judd and Carl Andre), and necessarily highlights power dynamics associated with these genres. In minimalist art, the specific use of the square was a way in which artists distanced themselves from conversations around biography and expression. By using both square shapes and the symmetrical method of graffiti removal in Urban Abstraction, Martinez speaks to the power dynamics of street artist and abstract painter, high and low forms of art, as well as the graffiti artist and city worker; the artwork reflects how white power has been used to cover over and erase histories in multiple forms.

Jel Martinez. Experience, Roots & Forms, 2013; mixed media on canvas; 58 x 68 in. Courtesy of the Artist. 

Martinez’s paintings represent to me how graffiti artists have not only had their work erased by the white authority of city workers, but also have had their cultural identities negated. After all, one function of graffiti art is to make yourself visible and to take up the most significant space possible. By showing this form of erasure in his art, Martinez acknowledges systems of power put in place to remove the cultural markers of identity or graffiti culture while also highlighting the way in which minimalism sought to eliminate all forms of emotion or biography.

In Experience, Roots and Forms (2013), traces of graffiti—covered over or erased by minimalistic shapes—peek through layers of paint. The exact words are illegible, but the distinct markers and shapes of graffiti letters are still visible enough. The canvas’s rough, chunky texture holds brown and black shades (used throughout many of his works). Again, the minimalist fields of color cover over and remove the language of the graffiti artist. The blue square-like shapes, neatly rolled with a roller, obscure the traces of bright red letters. When looking at these paintings, it is hard to remember that this is not an actual wall but a representation of one.

Martinez’s work is founded on the idea of the faux wall, a falsely constructed wall. These ideas of false constructions can pertain to both emotional and social constructions. During my recent interview with Martinez, he recalled many stories of how he would sit back and watch the city workers come and paint over his work. He said it made him angry to see all his hard work covered over. When we put up walls emotionally, we are pulling from places of past hurt or trauma. In many cases, we are somewhere else—remembering past experiences in some other time and place. I think this is one reason why Martinez uses these portable faux walls: to maintain control of how his graffiti works get erased and by whom. Unlike the real walls Martinez pulls inspiration from, his are movable and inviting—a stark contrast to walls found in city streets that are constructed to block one’s view or keep people out. 

In Martinez’s latest work, Every Layer Tells a Story (2017), he focuses mainly on the texture of the walls. Measuring 3 feet by 4 feet, the faux-wall canvas covered in lime green and electric blue paint is hard to turn away from. The paint is split and cracked, and has begun to flake off, revealing the concrete underneath. Every Layer Tells a Story functions for me as a cropped detail or zoomed-in close-up of his much larger works, and challenges viewers to look deeper into his process and to consider how street walls are layered with conversations between both graffiti artists and city workers.

Every Layer Tells a Story reminds me of how walls act as witnesses, whether they are in public streets or private homes. They hold secrets and histories, identities and languages, codes and colors. The more narratives a wall holds, the thicker the folds of paint become. When it begins to peel and unravel, it is because the paint from the previous layer is detaching from the surface of the wall. This fragile and vulnerable wall filled with delicate flakes of paint reminds us that although some things appear to be erased, they are just waiting to be uncovered.

Jel Martinez. Writings and Removals (Graffiti Tag), 2017; mixed media on canvas; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In Writings and Removals (Graffiti Tag) (2017), Martinez adds another layer of graffiti over the radical marks of removal, creating an exchange of power. The canvas is constructed of mostly gray, blue, and pale yellow paint. The removal technique applied to this wall is a ghosting form of removal. In this method of erasure, the city worker traces over the graffiti, creating a ghosting or a shadowing of the letters. The pale blue paint runs down the canvas, which helps to add a downward movement, while the ghosting adds another type of movement. Rather than ending the conversation with the mark of the city worker, Martinez reclaims the streets, adding another lamination to the story on the wall in deep blue letters, illegible to those outside of the graffiti world. In this gesture, Martinez takes back his language and identity as a graffiti artist, and waits for the walls of conversation to be broken through, so speech can continue.

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