In the studio with Mauro C. Martinez.

Words by

James Ambrose

In the studio with Mauro C. Martinez.

What role did art play in your life growing up?

"Fine art" wasn't super big in our family but I was always encouraged to pursue creative endeavours from a very young age. One of my earliest and most embarrassing childhood memories is of wanting to be a singer. I spent a lot of time with my grandma growing up while my mom was in nursing school. I would emulate these nighttime talk shows she'd watch that always ended in a concert. After the concert, using a toy microphone, my grandma would announce me as a surprise encore performance and I'd fumble through what lyrics I knew of "Alla En El Rancho Grande"by Jorge Negrete. I was so bad but you'd never guess it by my granny's committed cheering.

Could you talk about the source material for the development of your paintings?

In 2018 I gave up on Painting, at least as I had come to understand it. I had built this idea in my head of what a "serious" or "successful" painter looked like and was continuously falling short of that. I started painting cursed images and memes because, as modes of image-making, they seemed to stand in such stark contrast to the conventions of oil painting. Memes are fast and free and intentionally exploitable if not author-less. Where memes and painting converge, however, is on the level of documentation. This has been part of the real thrust for me as I've always felt my primary role as a painter is to document the time.

Digital culture is a recurring theme in your work. What first attracted you to the reference of memes in your paintings?

I like the tension between the iconoclastic nature of memes and the archival nature of oil painting. They seem contradictory and harmonious at the same time. I'm as interested in the exploration of that quality as anything else.

Practice Makes Purrfect 2, 2020, oil on canvas
Images from your sensitive content series continue to go viral, how do you feel about this and how do you feel the narrative of the work evolves when this occurs?

The Sensitive Content paintings in particular are very much about viewer engagement so it makes a lot of sense that these would be the ones to go viral. Honestly, I'm not super sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it's great that so many people are being exposed to my work, but I've also never experienced so much hatred towards my work either. I had a situation recently where a small group of people were trying to "cancel" me after a Sensitive Content painting I made in response to the murder of George Floyd. It escalated after I refused their demands to censor my already censored painting. They mislabelled me as"white" (I'm clearly Hispanic), spread false information about my identity and intentions in posts and stories, even making threats of violence to my gallery Unit London. Unit stood by me the whole time, it was great. In the end, the response proved the need for the painting, especially as censorship in the arts is now a renewed threat. 

Is there a certain way that you would like viewers to engage with your work?

With openness.

You have a solo show with Unit London upcoming this September. Your work lends itself so well to digital platforms, however, what  importance do you place on people seeing your paintings in person within a gallery setting?

I would encourage people to see the work in person if for no other reason than because its a fun experience. At my last show, the 10-year-olds were just as engaged with the work as the adults. I remember one little kid was begging his parents to buy him this small painting of a cursed image I had done. That's something you don't normally see in an art gallery.

Cursed Richter, 2020, oil on canvas
From what I have read, the use of different processes in the creation of your work varies greatly from series to series, tell me about those that you utilise and how they are incorporated?

The oil paintings are probably the most straightforward in terms of technical application. I normally use a projector or a grid to place the drawing and then I apply a thin wash of colour to the entire surface. I'll work about 3-5 layers on top of that. For the"blurry" paintings like the sensitive content stuff, that's a 2-part process. The first part is the painting, which (depending on the scale) is either done with just an airbrush or a mixture of aerosol and airbrush. I work from the lightest values to the darkest and probably lay down about 3-4 layers. Afterwards, I use a silkscreen to apply the text over top. Every series has its technical requirements and ultimately it's just about trying to be of service to the image.

Even though your process can be technically diverse are there any constants or certain routines that you always follow in the studio?

Oil paint is a staple for me in terms of medium. I'm pretty sure the airbrush will be the same as well. In terms of behaviour, I pace a lot.

How often do you paint?

I'm in the studio about 5 days a week, more if things are busy. But I'm also big on giving myself time to rest if I need it. 

Sensitive Content No 19, 2020, oil, air brush & aerosol on canvas
Do you consider your work political? Do you think it is important that art does have a degree of political narrative, especially in these times?

Considering again that I feel like my primary role as an artist is to document the time -- and then considering the time -- I'd have to say yes, my work is necessarily political. I think artists should stay true to whatever role it is they feel their work serves.

Your earlier work followed a far more abstract path, what influenced the move to a more figurative approach? Do you ever see a return to it? 

Ah, I see you've found the end (or beginning) of my Instagram account! I did a big account purge sometime in 2018 so everything before what you see has been deleted. I regret doing that now. I wanted my Instagram feed to look cool so I started deleting stuff until I ended up deleting everything. It was such a silly way to have been thinking about my account and my work. Luckily, I have all of those photos downloaded. The captions are gone though, which is a shame. It's kind of like throwing away old drawings/sketchbooks you're ashamed of because they reflect honestly on your time as a novice. I did that a lot too. I Also regret it. I've always been primarily a figurative artist but my goal is to pull a Gerhard Richter in my 40's and go abstract

You are currently based in Texas, tell me about your surroundings do they have any resonance on your practice?

I moved to San Antonio from Laredo in 2019. My little barn red studio is on a 2-acre plot of land my grandpa owns and lives on. It is about 15 miles out of town and surrounded by ranch and farmland. The daily commute allows me to think and the studio affords me the space to experiment. Being at the studio has also put me in closer touch with nature on a daily basis, which seems to have ignited this latent love for the outdoors. I'm not sure if that last bit directly affects my practice, but I'm definitely a happier painter because of it!

Why do you love painting?

Painting is different things to me at different times. If I'm curious, painting is a place to explore. If I'm discontent, painting is a space to innovate. If I'm in love, painting won't mind if I ignore it for a few days. How could I not love something that has always been willing to meet me exactly where I am?

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Photos by Albert Gonzales