Tenacious Repose: Lilian Martinez’s Soft Shades


Tenacious Repose: Lilian Martinez’s Soft Shades

By Lindsay Costello March 6, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

In Soft Shades at Nationale, Lilian Martinez’s first solo exhibition in Portland, the paintings feature larger-than-life figures in sun-soaked, radiant relaxation. Pastels, philodendron leaves, and domestic settings abound, conjuring a familiar, joyful softness. A duality of quietude and poise in Martinez’s works is emblematic of a widespread contemporary culture celebrating wellness and leisure. Martinez’s figures confidently fill the canvas, highlighting her focus on womxn’s reclamation of space.

Occupying space is a radical act—particularly for womxn of color, whose bodies are systemically politicized and policed. The Brown body is the central subject in the majority of Martinez’s paintings, most often depicted in repose, bathing or relaxing. The figures are vulnerable yet unbothered. Each is stylized and voluptuous. I’m reminded of sensuous bodies depicted by Rembrandt and Rubens, but Martinez’s figures stand apart from the all-too-familiar styles of these and other white, male, European painters. Her womxn aren’t angelic, euphoric, or pleading. Their proportions are playfully skewed, with small heads and wide, rounded shoulders. They display a blatant confidence, and layers of emotions radiate from their expressions. They don’t smile but gaze straightforwardly at the viewer. Their bodies swell, unflinching—a reclaiming of canvas space.

Lilian Martinez. Shelf with Figure and Vase, 2018; acrylic on linen; 11 x 9 in. Courtesy of Nationale, Portland. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

With the exception of two works, the paintings’ dimensions are roughly equal. The effect is spare but arresting, drawing concentrated attention to the depicted bodies and their relationship to space. I noted several moments of exchange in the works—conversations between large and small forms, muted and bright colors, and ancient and commercial imagery. In Pastel Caves (2018), a figure wears Nike sneakers but resembles the Venus of Willendorf. In Figure with Two Fountains (2017), an almost mythological story is told, with a statuesque nude figure reclining between gushing fountains. The retroactive whitewashing of historical painting is directly challenged in these works. Martinez depicts a timeless territory in which a womxn of color is both self-assured and serene. Her fertility is observable but secondary to her tenacity.

The paintings are drenched with imagery of flowing water, snails, and bright green leaves, bringing to mind the cool spirit of a Greek naiad. Martinez also utilizes a sun-washed palette that reflects her home in Los Angeles. The combination of elements establishes a sense of place both mystical and grounded. For instance, in Art Handler II (2018), a pickup truck transports a huge figural sculpture underneath a canopy of tropical leaves. The scene feels realistic enough but is interrupted by the enormity of the sculpture and the presence of two tiny snails inching across a flat plane of grass. An anthropomorphized sun, maintaining the same steady gaze as the figure, creates commonality between the body and the natural world.

Lilian Martinez. Soft Shades, 2018; installation view, Nationale. Courtesy of Nationale, Portland. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Tucked away in Nationale’s back room, Shelf with Figure and Vase (2018) is the smallest painting in the series. Here, a light-skinned figure, positioned on a pedestal, is proportionate to a vase, suggesting an idealization and objectification of the white body. At less than half the size of the other paintings, this painting establishes a hierarchy of importance. Through their scale, the larger paintings of Brown figures quite literally take on more power than Shelf with Figure and Vase.

Housewares are on display in the gallery and available for sale, but it’s not clear whether they are intended to be part of the exhibition. These are from Lilian Martinez's brand, BFGF, which offers trendy “accessible and functional art objects for the home and body.” Woven blankets and pillows feature compositions of womxn alongside Nike swooshes, Simpsons characters, and basketballs. The figures depicted recall Greco-Roman artifacts and, illustrated alongside images of 1990s nostalgia, hint that our experiences of popular media are likewise cemented in history. In this subtle way, BFGF shoppers reclaim the significance of their personal histories.

Lilian Martinez. Tropical Shadows, production ongoing; woven cotton; 71 x 53 in. Courtesy of Nationale, Portland. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

The sheer popularity of BFGF’s soft objects speaks further to a topical emphasis on comfort, relaxation, self-love, and moments of subdued joy, but through these works, Martinez also cultivates a deeper conversation on the body as commodity. The nude womxn depicted alongside commercial symbols implies a similarity between them, not unlike that seen in Shelf with Figure and Vase. The commodification of womxn of color is called to attention, specifically as seen in the contemporary digital realm, where much of Martinez’s work resides. Trends of language, style, and appearance are frequently lifted directly from womxn of color and used as a source of capital. In her BFGF designs, Martinez finds a playful link between contemporary symbols like the Nike swoosh and Nike, the goddess of victory, but these links also highlight the often appropriative nature with which society treats womxn’s identities.

The Observer once deemed Martinez “the Matisse of the Instagram era,” and given her stylized figures and leafy imagery, the comparison isn’t entirely unfounded. However, looking more closely at Martinez’s handling of complex gender and race-related issues, the Matisse moniker doesn’t tell the whole story. While Martinez’s digital brand illustrates a new focus on ease, well-being, and social progress, she also brings these ideals into physical space. Her compositions transcend the boundaries of scale and societal expectation with a subtle fearlessness entirely her own.

Lilian Martinez: Soft Shades is on view at Nationale in Portland, Oregon through March 5, 2019.

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