Walking down any concrete artery in Los Angeles, you may pass some of the elements and ideas in Patrick Martinez’s grand 7′ × 16′ abstracted landscape painting, Promised Land. A Pasadena and San Gabriel native, Martinez creates layered work that reflects his connection to the region and to the graffiti he grew up writing in the early ’90s with his crew, HDS (Hitting Dope Spots). As a teenager, he submitted his black book—a graffiti writer’s sketchbook that includes inscriptions and drawings—as a portfolio to the Visual Arts and Design Academy, a specialized art high school. At VADA, he met and became inspired by teacher and artist Mark Ayala. Like Ayala, Martinez went on to earn a degree from ArtCenter College of Design, which he graduated from in 2005 with a BFA.
Promised Land, like much of Martinez’s work, responds to his life in the city and its surroundings, and the disenfranchisement of people of color. It features images of pre-Columbian Cacaxtla battle warriors and painted palm trees, and incorporates other, more physical elements, like a fallen vinyl banner, geometric tiles, and neon signage. Through this mixture of materials, Martinez evokes a cultural environment that is constantly being destroyed, rebuilt, and gentrified. I spoke to him about the work at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
THE BELIEVER: How did you begin to imagine this painting?
PATRICK MARTINEZ: My first entry point to painting was graffiti. I understood that the city was like an addition-subtraction game. My friends and me, we started adding to the city, and then the city would take things out. Or people that owned the shop, or whatever you wrote on, would take away what you did. It was this community game of tag. I was always interested in that, and the way things are changing.
I understand in my head what I’m trying to say with a piece. A lot of the ideas that come into my mind these days are about land—especially now, when I have a child, and I want to own a piece of it. A lot of people in Los Angeles just want to occupy space in the city they grew up in. When I started thinking about the piece, I started thinking about that.
My approach is pretty traditional. If you really peel back the layers, I deal with landscapes, figures, portraits, and that’s pretty much it. In the tradition of art history, I feel like that’s traditional, but I try to turn all that stuff on its head.
In approaching this landscape, I did some things in a traditional way. When I started it, I knew I was going to start with Central Mexican murals, brown bodies that you might see at community centers, parks, middle schools, elementary schools. Painted on stuccos and handball courts. I imagined that kind of mural on stucco, so I started with stucco, brown, and primer, white. Then I started painting on top of it with Cacaxtla battle murals.
BLVR: What does it mean to have the pre-Columbian figures as your background?
PM: I think about them as brown bodies. In the Americas, brown bodies were here first. Layering them and showing the layers on top of them are the language of my ideas, and are all signifiers of years of that talk of wanting people to “go back to where they came from.” We’ve been here. Before anything, there were brown folks walking around.
BLVR: How did you come up with the title?
PM: In Los Angeles, when I’m making work, I almost think about it as though I’m making a postcard of the place. It’s beautiful, but it’s tough out here. People really struggle to figure things out. There’s financial violence going on. There are things that you used to be able to afford that you can’t afford. It’s this subtle kind of slipping away of things.
I thought about that when I started making the piece; I thought about it when I was close to finishing it and titling it. It’s a weird thing, because I have family that has moved away and has been priced out of Los Angeles. So it’s like this postcard saying, Oh, it’s so beautiful here. Who wants to come? But also, not really.
BLVR: It’s a facade.
PM: It’s a facade, and then something is built on top of that facade. I’m layering murals on top of one another, washing them out, tagging on them.
BLVR: I feel like these colors speak to California. They speak to old graffiti too. What do they mean in this work?
PM: I think about that, why I come back to certain colors. Often, when I see something in the city, I sample it. I try to figure out a way to use it in the paintings. Pink is something that comes up in a lot of the graffiti I’ve done. Also, the colors of storefronts that are dilapidated. They’re still kind of standing, like barbershops and things on Whittier Boulevard. It’s not part of this aesthetic that has been dictated to us via new high-rises and what’s supposed to be valuable. It’s almost like the opposite of what “sleek” is supposed to look like in Los Angeles. I’m looking at all that and I’m wanting to do the opposite and celebrate the discounted and the overlooked.
BLVR: You’ve used many materials in this artwork before: stucco, tiles, ceramic, neon. What’s the process like in terms of layering them?
PM: I start by organizing materials by the size I want. I do it from left to right. I throw materials on there and try to equalize them, even them out. Even though it’s chaotic, I’m figuring out what I’m trying to say with the materials, and what the materials can add.
Then I start going for it on the panel. There are points where I just get stuck and I’m like, This piece, the idea was this, and it’s not reading like that right now. At one point, with this piece, I was driving home and I saw this tarp, right there in Vernon. I was like: That’s kind of the rhythm that I need in the piece. Just things like that—the land provides. If you’re paying attention, it’ll show you, like, Oh, yeah. Oh, you need it? OK. Here you go.
BLVR: In this layering process, at what point do you know: I need light. Or: I’m going to bring in neon?
PM: It’s in the middle of it. If I’m doing a stucco piece, it always comes up because I always think about storefronts and how they’re designed. I’m trying to celebrate that and inject that into the piece somehow. The neon palm trees: they work as something that you might find in a storefront.
BLVR: And what about the photographs set inside the neon signage?
PM: This is from my family archive, my mother’s side and my father’s side. My mom came from the Philippines in the ’70s, and her family followed. My dad’s family has been here for a long time. It’s that crazy dynamic. I do these as kind of cyan prints of them to show time passing. It makes them look like a poster in a hair salon or barbershop—they’re sun-kissed. To me that speaks to time, but also more specifically to LA weather.
BLVR: Using all these materials in a collage is an abstract way to meditate on that relationship with time within the landscape. How do the ceramic roses find their place in this narrative?
PM: The rose is something that I hand-make, each one of them, out of clay. The idea comes from street memorials. It’s abstracted, because I’m sticking them to the surface of the stucco. But the street memorials, if you’ve ever seen them in any city, you see the combination of hard and soft roses. People leave this kind of thing wherever someone got hit by a car, or shot, or whatever. Someone lost a life. It’s a memorial, kind of makeshift. That’s part of the landscape, so I’m using that and abstracting it a little bit.
BLVR: What is the most challenging part for you in making this painting?
PM: The size of it. It was very physical. It was on the wall when I was making it, but really being able to physically put it together was the most challenging part. It’s real labor: cutting tile, placing tile, painting layers and layers of paint with rollers.
BLVR: How did you know when you were finished?
PM: I knew I wanted the piece to almost feel like sound. Like when it gets too loud, the beat gets too loud, and it distorts, and it’s almost kind of this shaking. It’s interesting, because that’s really what I think about when I start something. I want it to feel kind of like that.
My brother used to have a Toyota truck, and he used to have Cerwin Vega speakers in the back with a Rockford Fosgate amp. He used to bump loud. In the ’90s we used to drive around, and he used to bump loud. I think about that a lot: Well, what do you want your work to do? I want it to bother people like that. I want it to bother people and the cars next to us. You know what I mean?
BLVR: Hell yeah.
PM: Just kind of like, Fuck, what… what are you…? I feel like my brother turned it up all the way because he felt it was the truth and he wanted people to hear it.