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Corcoran Gallery Of Art

There is a joyousness in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exuberant and expansive summer blockbuster exhibition of the monumental, the large, and even the small — but all strikingly colorful — art of Chris Martin. Titled “Painting Big,” it fills half the Corcoran’s grand atrium, all of the gallery’s rotunda, and of its Now Gallery space, which  celebrates the best of contemporary art. The 60 works on display radiate authenticity — of inspiration, materials, and successful expression — and demonstrate the artist’s commitment to that great 20th century American art maxim “to make it new.”

The diversity of these works’ content, their unusual and stunning color harmonies and disharmonies, along with the range of artistic materials and found objects used, all play magically with the variety of styles and forms in Chris Martin’s eclectic creations.

The show opens with the monumental — three huge, 26-by-17 foot pennant-style banner paintings standing in the north half of the Corcoran atrium. These three works, specifically commissioned by the Corcoran for the atrium space, seem taller and narrower than their exact measurements; they serve to enhance the enormous height of that space, and immediately engage the viewer.  And these three paintings work together in the same fashion that three very different, independent minded individuals not in uniform visually and collaboratively work together. These works, and the space they create, emphatically declare that art is all around us, inside us, and floating above us.

Painted in sections on house painter drop cloths, which were then sewn together to create monumentally-sized works, Martin gives us first, a glittering maelstrom of the force of the world’s creation, infused with an underlying emotional strength of American soul and rock music; then secondly, with a painting presenting a colorful structuring of wild amoeba-like forms articulated as a loosely connected colorful web about to split apart, with songbirds scattered about; and finally, with a black and white abstraction of symbolic patterning of forms that could imaginatively be anything from Victorian banister rails to an earlier manifestation of strands or strips — with repeating bulb outs — of some deep genetic code.

Chris Martin’s incorrigible joyfulness further bursts forth in the 50 much smaller works hung salon-style in the rotunda. The materials used in these works range from mixed-media and insulation foam on wire mesh to mass-produced slices of white bread mounted on canvas, and are used for both a seriousness of the deepest sort and pop star observations.

The tragic humor of his tiny oil and collage on aluminum foil over wood painting, For the Protection of Amy Winehouse, which hangs high above the rotunda doorway into the grand staircase beyond the atrium, is followed by a double S-styled work of text in honor of a quote from Alice Miller which reads, “Grandiosity is the defense against depression which masks the despair over loss of self.” Nearby is an intriguing figurative abstraction that presents an homage to James Brown, characterized by Martin as the father of soul. Another image is that of hemlock trees, which are deftly captured in what becomes an abstraction in the nearby gallery of large paintings. A small fiery oil and collage reminds me of William Blake and the English romantics, while a hilarious “stilt painting” is reminiscent of Claus Oldenberg at his wittiest. A landscape painting of a deep ravine with the numbers one through seven is one of Martin’s many enigmatic works that present intriguing plays on numerology.

One of my favorite pieces is a very small, perhaps no larger than 12-by-18 inches, enigmatic symbolic eye — a beautifully colored painting. And sprinkled throughout these cleverly hung works are some that art critics might characterize as “outsider” art; these might, however, be better characterized as simply expressions of an accomplished artist who lives his art daily and incorporates into it whatever he encounters — in tangible experience, in deep reverie of thought, or in the memory of dreams. These 50 works in the rotunda were created by Martin over the last 25 years.

The show concludes in the second floor Now Gallery where six of Martin’s best-known works, all created during the last seven or eight years, are on view. According to Corcoran curator Sarah Newman’s informative and beautifully illustrated pamphlet accompanying the show, “these large works on the theme of landscape relate specifically to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York and the Ganges River in Varnasi, India.” They are wonderful paintings, from the hemlocks of the Catskills to the heavily patterned, abstract presentation of what could be one of the giant Finger Lakes in New York State, to the artist’s dramatically colored, geometric forms of the platform steps of a ghat descending into the Ganges — the largest vision of which spills onto the gallery floor. These are paintings to absorb into one’s visual consciousness.

Chris Martin was born in Washington, DC, in 1954; attended Yale University from 1972 to 1975; received a BFA from the New York School of Visual Arts in 1992; and has lived and worked in New York City since 1976. His work remains on view in this, his first one-man show in an art museum, through October 23rd.

17th Street & New York Ave., NW; tel., (202) 639-1700; $10, adults; $8, seniors & students. Wed.-Sun., 10am-5pm; Thu. to 9pm.