Martin asks ‘Who are You?’ in New Britain Retrospective


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NEW BRITAIN — “We’ve all had experience with drawing as kids with pencils and pens and markers and that was my first introduction to the line,” said artist Shantell Martin. “I think the difference with myself is that I never stopped that introduction. I’ve always enjoyed the simplicity of the line.”

Martin, 40, has focused on the line and its possibilities for more than 20 years, creating a body of work that spans from small drawings to wall-size murals, as well as video performances and commercial collaborations with high-end brands. 

Her first career retrospective is on display at the New Britain Museum of American Art through April 18. The show is part of the museum’s NEW/NOW series featuring emerging and established contemporary artists.

Martin was born in Greenwich, London and earned her BA in Graphic Design and Illustration at Central Saint Martins, London. She has served as a Visiting Scholar at MIT Media Lab and a Fellow at Brown Institute of Media Innovation at Columbia University. She is an adjunct professor at NYU in the Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program.

For the show, she created “Transparency,” a 40-by-16-foot mural on one interior wall of the museum. To create the piece, she worked spontaneously, using ink markers. The words “transparency,” “accountability,” and “self-knowledge, along with phrases and rhymes, are interspersed among faces, stick figures, and landscape elements that connect and flow into and out of one another. 

“The pen tells you where to go. As soon as you start to push the pen, you become someone else,” Martin stated in one of the videos included in the show. 

Shantell Martin (Photo: Matt Doyle)

“It’s about allowing, not forcing,” Martin said in a conversation with CT Examiner. “That’s the main and perhaps the only reason I’m able to come into a space like New Britain Museum and spontaneously in just over two hours create a 40-foot by 16-foot drawing. People might think it would take me a week or a few days but it’s a couple of hours because I’m allowing my hand to move with the pen, I’m allowing the pen to tell me to go, so it just becomes about this meditation of drawing versus forcing.”

As her confidence has grown, the scale of her drawings have become larger, she said. 

“Someone described me once as a drawing gladiator, someone that tackles these large expanses of space. I love to challenge myself in that way because I think when you’re working that big and physically, you’re taking the thinking out of what you’re doing and you’re making it mostly an intuitive physical action — and that creates an honest line in a way, a very simple line but a very honest line,” she said. 

Martin has also collaborated with Momentum Fabrics as well as Ligne Roset furniture to create the couches and chairs in the gallery. Other collaborations include United Airlines, Tiffany & Company, Puma Select, Jose Cuervo, Max Mara, and Kelly Wearstler, among many others. 

“I think I’ve always enjoyed this idea of art as product because it means it’s accessible, consumable in the sense that you can have it in your home,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with art around me or museums or galleries and so my introduction to visually pleasing things were things that we would naturally come across, which in a way is design — it’s furniture, it’s home products or small gift items. And for me, I think that’s a really meaningful way to put my message out there,” she said. 

She said she works with brands that she feels are morally and ethically in line with her work or brands that have an interesting legacy or history. She said commercial collaborations allow a different demographic to access her art.

“I get to put my message on a product that then people get to wear or they get to use or they get to gift. And for me, that is so meaningful. In a way it’s more meaningful than putting art in a wall, somewhere where most people won’t get to see it. I’m lucky enough that I get to do both,” she said. 

The show also includes needlepointed pieces that focus on race and language, which were collaborations between Martin and her grandmother, Doc Martin.

“She was my white, English, older grandmother, who had obviously a very different life and experience to me growing up in a different generation of being a different race,” Martin said. 

Her grandmother also needlepointed as a hobby and Martin began to ask for specific pieces, including ‘Half White 1980’ in black and white and ‘Half White 1980’ in black and white done in the reverse. 

“She sewed the pieces for me and when she finished, she said, ‘What else?’ And that turned into over a decade-long collaboration and conversations with my grandmother, where I ended up writing her instructions from wherever I lived in the world, London, or Tokyo or New York,” Martin said.

Shantell Martin collaboration with her grandmother (Photo: Where they Create)

“Lucky in Life” and “People of Non Color” were some of Martin’s requests that her grandmother needlepointed. 

“But then I would call her and we would have a dialogue or conversation about these pieces, and some of them were more about race and identity,” Martin said. 

Throughout the show in drawings, objects and videos, Martin continually asks the viewer questions that relate to issues of identity, race, sexuality and culture. One question she asks repeatedly is, “Who are you?” 

“I feel that I’ve been asking this question forever. I’m obsessed with this question because I think if we learn how to actually start answering it, a lot of other things, a lot of other issues, a lot of other problems will start to fall into place,” she said. 

In Martin’s work, the words “who are you” are often stacked together, and, she said, that gives a clue of how to solve the question.

“If you cover up all the letters, apart from the first three letters, W-A-Y are the first three letters of all those words — it says ‘way,’ and I think if we think of it practically, like how am I finding my way in life,” she said. “I’m finding my way in life through creating this language of words and lines and drawings. It’s helping me to answer, perhaps it’s not giving me the vocabulary, but it’s giving me the tools to answer who I am.”

The New/Now show featuring Shantell Martin runs through April 18 at the New Britain Museum of American Art.